There’s still a long road ahead to find peace

Fresno Bee, September 20, 2014

Thirty years ago the United Nations declared Sept. 21 as an International Day of Peace. We’ve still got a long way to go.

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Human beings are the most violent animals on the planet. No other species kills its own members in large numbers on a regular basis. And yet, no other species reflects upon its own behavior or loves itself as much as we do. Hope for peace can be found in our capacity for reason and our ability to love.

Quite a few people claim that love provides the path to peace. Bumper sticker wisdom proclaims, “No love, no peace — know love, know peace.” Martin Luther King explained that love cuts through evil and hate. He said, “Love is the only creative, redemptive, transforming power in the universe.” Love moves us to sacrifice and care for others. It connects us to each other in a way that should promote harmony and peace.

But love without reason is blind. Love usually stops at the front door: we love our family but not our neighbors. Sometimes we do “love our neighbors.” But love rarely extends beyond borders. We may love those who share our ethnic, national or religious identity. But it is difficult to love humanity as a whole.

The best teachers of love want to extend it broadly, even maintaining that we ought to love our enemies. That is a radical idea, which may be impossible for mere mortals. But reason does tell us to extend love in a universal direction. A moment’s thought tells us that we are all members of the same species, despite our differences. Reason tells us that racial and ethnocentric biases are unjustified. It points toward an impartial and universal point of view.

We might supplement King’s enthusiasm for love, then, by claiming that reason is also a creative and transformative power in the universe. Reason’s virtue is its demand for objectivity and justification. Reason directs us away from nepotism, ethnic chauvinism, jingoistic patriotism, narcissistic pride and other malfunctions of love.

If we admit that love without reason is blind, we should also admit that reason without love is heartless. Warmongers often make cold-blooded arguments to support their violence. The same is true for murderers, torturers and the rest of violent humanity. Explanations and rationalizations have been employed in defense of all sorts of brutality.

Some arguments in defense of violence are better than others. But things go horribly wrong when callous arguments and cold rationalizations ignore the common beating heart of human experience, which is love. The tragedy of reason is its tendency to become cruelly inhuman and unloving.

A further difficulty is that violence is often justified in the name of love. Reason tells us that we ought to defend those we love against our enemies. But those enemies are also motivated by love and by arguments of their own. All human beings love their families, friends and ideals. Even the suicidal terrorist thinks that he’s justified. The deepest difficulty of violence is that it can be fueled by love and reason — the very things that should prevent violence.

The good news is that many of us are increasingly skeptical of traditional justifications of violence. Domestic violence, for example, would have gone unremarked upon in previous generations. Recent outrage about highly publicized cases of domestic violence is a sign of progress. There is similar outrage about war crimes and military aggression around the world. A growing number of us believe that violence is an irrational remnant of the youth of humanity.

To make further progress we have to link the objectivity and impartiality of reason with the passionate motivation and empathic connection of love. We need universal and reasonable love; and we need benevolent and compassionate reason. We need to love better and think more carefully.

Violence — like hatred, stupidity and ignorance — is easy. Thinking and loving are harder. It takes persistence and patience to love, to think and to build peace. Humanity has slowly worked its way toward a global society, through millennia of horrors. We are making slow progress. But piles of corpses and oceans of tears litter the way. The hard work of the next 30 years — and the next millennium — is to make ourselves more loving, more reasonable and more peaceful.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/09/19/4133666/theres-still-a-long-road-ahead.html#storylink=cpy

 

Contemplating the arts

Take time to contemplate the arts in this trivial digital age

Fresno Bee September 6, 2014 

Poetry, philosophy, literature and art are uniquely human activities. Other animals play, sing and even dance. But no other animal contemplates its own existence.

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Philosopher Contemplating Death

In our quick digital era, one wonders whether there is time for contemplation. Speed and multitasking can undermine focus needed to study a poem, observe a work of art or digest a philosophical insight.

Our digital tools give us unprecedented opportunity to explore the humanities. We can download the great works of literature and philosophy and carry them with us in phones and tablets. We can publish our own reflections with the click of a mouse. Art works are easily copied and forwarded.

This could be a golden age of philosophical reflection and poetic insight. There are hidden backwaters of the Internet where poetry, philosophy and art flourish. But much of the mainstream flows in another direction. The Internet deluges us with foolish factoids, meaningless memes, pornographic pictures and vicious videos. The rising tide of trivia can easily sweep us away.

Our attention is divided by the pace and flow of information. Even conversation suffers: We text instead of call. We dread the spiraling buffer sign and multitask while we wait. Our attention bounces along among scattered bits of quickly moving data.

Speedy multitasking is not all bad. In some cases, a brief text is all you need. When you only want data, a quick download is great. The trivia passing through our gadgets can be surfed and skimmed.

But careful, slow and deliberate attention is important. Life’s most meaningful moments deserve our time and undivided attention: falling in love, giving birth, growing old, dying. Unhurried, sustained reflection is a mature human ability, as is the ability to listen, read and think.

It takes time and concentration to understand Shakespeare or Plato or Picasso. Deliberate, undivided effort is needed to write a poem, construct an argument or analyze a work of literature. The same intellectual skill is needed in the sciences, in law and in other fields. But the humanities are unique in forcing us to slow down, breathe deeply and contemplate.

Shakespeare once compared his love to a summer’s day. That’s a fact (download Sonnet 18 and you’ll see). But what does it mean? Summer days are slow and luxurious. Unfortunately, beauty fades, as does summer. Is there hope? Shakespeare hints that poetry holds beauty in place against the ravages of time.

Does the Internet also preserve us against swift-footed time? You could post Shakespeare’s sonnet on your website along with your other pictures and memes. But copying and pasting is not understanding. Meaning cannot be downloaded. There is no app for insight.

Good poetry is precise. Haiku can be inspiring. Shakespeare’s sonnets are 140 syllables long. Concise communication is a useful art. But we’ve shaved this down to tweets of 140 characters. And we’ve compressed the time we need to reflect upon the meaning of things, while filling the void with data.

Data transfer is to thinking as sex is to love. Human beings could exchange DNA in a quick genetic data dump. But love is much more than this. Love is a mysterious communion of souls haunted by a whiff of eternity. It involves contemplation: You linger, savor and dream about your beloved.

The same is true of poetry, philosophy and other attempts to fathom the human spirit. Lingering, savoring, dreaming and contemplating are the modes and moods of the humanities. Through them we rise above the manic din of data exchange and hover for a moment in defiance of swift-footed, devouring time.

Our electronic exchanges are like quick splashes of water that run off dry land without sinking in. Philosophy, poetry and the arts are stickier, gentler and denser. When given time and attention, they provide deep irrigation for the human spirit.

It is not surprising that the value of the humanities is best expressed in metaphor. Metaphors force us to slow down and think. It is not enough to simply state that the humanities are valuable in themselves — that’s a fact to be posted, tweeted and repeated. We also need to see that poetry, philosophy and art provide an oasis of contemplation in a desert of data.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/09/05/4107180_ethicstake-time-to-contemplate.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Passion, Heat, and Nirvana

When passions heat, learn to spiritually stop, drop and roll

Fresno Bee, August 29, 2014

We live in a flammable world.  Wildfires scorch the countryside. Anger boils over in the streets. Proverbial powder kegs are hidden everywhere.IMG_2402

Stability and peace are temporary in a world ruled by heat and fire.

Our language is full of fiery imagery. Plagues, protests, wars and ideas can “spread like wildfire.” Fads catch fire and take off. An interest is sparked. A torch is passed. People and ideas burn out.

Ancient civilizations viewed fire as elemental. Some Greek philosophers described the world as an eternal, living fire. The Stoics taught that the universe was periodically consumed in a cosmic conflagration.

In the Bible, God is described as a burning bush and a consuming fire. Jesus said that he had come to set fire to the earth. Christians still speak of being set ablaze by the Holy Spirit and the fire of faith. But fire is also associated with the devil. This indicates our ambivalence about fire. It is both good and evil.

The Buddhist tradition warns against playing with fire. The Buddha once said that all things are on fire: the world, the body and the mind. Liberation is found in taming passion and its pyrotechnics. Nirvana can be understood as blowing out a flame, while leaving its light.

Fire and passion can enliven and destroy. We are both masters of fire and its victims. Passion is the energy of life. But it can disrupt peace. Jealousy, resentment, infatuation and greed can smolder and burst into flames. But ambition and the “fire in the belly” give meaning and purpose to life.

Civilization is a process of domesticating both fire and passion. Homo erectus used fire more than half a million years ago. But homo sapiens used it to take over the earth. We burned forests to clear land for farms. We captured fire and controlled it, eventually learning to burn coal, gas and oil. These combustibles fueled the industrial revolution.

But dangers remain. Famous fires burned down Rome, London and San Francisco. Inflamed passions continue to spark conflict and disorder. And every fire leaves behind smoke and ash. The fires of the industrial revolution produced a smoldering climate. Passionate violence has left smoldering ruins across the world.

Fire prevention and management can provide a guide for living. Put out little fires before they blaze into raging infernos. Clear away the junk and undergrowth that can feed the flames. Prevent sparks from flying when possible. Keep a tight lid on your really flammable stuff. Make sure you know where the fire extinguisher is. And when passion flares up, take a deep breath and spiritually stop, drop and roll.

Once a fire is blazing ethical questions arise. We might attempt to fight fire with fire, as the saying goes, lighting backfires, bringing in the big guns, and unleashing awesome firepower. You may have to destroy some things in order to save others. But that is not always just or wise. Escalation is a worry, as is blowback.

Sometimes it is wise to let fires burn themselves out. A small controlled fire can consume the fuel that could cause a larger conflagration. Just as fever helps cure disease, outbursts of furious rage can burn up emotional energy.

There is some wisdom in those traditions that fear the flames of passion. But the fire in the belly is not always bad. The key is to harness our spiritual energies, just as we do with the controlled explosions of the internal combustion engine. Ambition, pride and the desire for justice need a productive outlet.

Fire and life have co-evolved. The burning sun is the source of life. And every human birth begins in hot-blooded desire. Our passion makes life interesting and worth living.

The giant sequoias provide a lesson. Their thick resilient skin keeps them standing through centuries of forest fire. Their seeds need fire to germinate. Like the sequoia, fire and passion can make us stronger and help us give birth to new growth that emerges from the flames.

Some dream of a calm, cool world. But icy equanimity can’t sustain life. We inhabit a flammable planet. Our bodies and souls are combustible. Wisdom lies in knowing when to light a flame and when to blow one out.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/08/29/4095153_ethics-when-passions-heat-learn.html?sp=/99/1355/&rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Trying Times, Luck, Compassion

Trying Times Remind Us About Luck

Fresno Bee, August 9, 2014  IMG_0687

As the horrors of this summer unfold – war, disease and refugee children – we should reflect on how lucky we are. If you had been born in Central America, the Middle East or West Africa, your life would be quite different. Of course, you don’t have to travel far to see bad luck. Violence, illness and homelessness occur here, too.

Einstein once said, referring to the deep structure of reality, that God does not play dice. But it does seem that a dice-playing divinity rules our lives. Life and death, success and failure, are often simply matters of luck. Happiness and destitution hinge on the roll of the cosmic dice.

Some believe that a wise and benevolent providence guides our lives. From this point of view, even bad luck works out for the best in the long run. That’s a nice idea. But it is hard to understand why God allows some to thrive while others suffer. If we can’t discern the reason behind our fortunes or misfortunes, we might as well chalk it up to chance.

Americans like to believe that winners make their own luck. Walt Whitman boldly stated the American faith in self-made luck: “Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune.” Whitman told us to take to the road to find our fortune. To get lucky, you do have to open your heart to the world and embrace opportunities when they arrive. This hopeful idealism makes sense in an open and welcoming world.

But for some, the dice are loaded against them. The plight of the children fleeing Central America reminds us that roads are often closed and that welcome mat can be pulled in. A similar problem stacks the deck against the children of Africa and the Middle East. We might admire the courage of refugees who take to the road to find a better life. But the homeless wandering our streets remind us that fortune is hard to find on the open road.

Hard work and determination cannot guarantee survival for unlucky children born into war, poverty and disease. These afflictions prey equally upon the smart and the stupid. Industrious folks may have a slight advantage in Gaza, Liberia or Honduras. But talent and tenacity can’t overcome the chance occurrences of history and geography.

We don’t choose where or when we are born. Nor do we choose our genetic endowment or cultural heritage. The most important facts of our biographies are entirely beyond our control and subject to the cosmic lottery.

The existentialist philosophers coined the term “thrown-ness” to describe the human condition. We are thrown_like dice_into the world. We find ourselves in a place and time, in a body, and living a life that we did not create or choose. Each moment of our lives involves another throw of the dice.

Our only power is in choosing how to react to the rolling dice. Virtue and character appear in the way we navigate the winds of fortune. We can give up in despair and resign ourselves to fate. Or we can resolve to work hard, despite the odds. But at the end of the day, you don’t control the way the dice fall.

Understanding the role of luck in life should make us more modest about our triumphs and less ashamed of our defeats. Every great achievement contains an element of chance that calls pride into question. Seeing that every loss includes some bad luck can moderate feelings of blame or regret.

The truth of luck is that it is always changing. It can be difficult to appreciate good luck, when you are worried about losing it. But admitting the fragility of good fortune can lead you to savor the sweetness of success. And understanding that bad luck does not last forever can give you solace while you wait for your fortunes to change.

In the end, to understand luck is to develop compassion. The unlucky have usually done nothing to deserve their misfortune. Another roll of the dice and it could be you digging through the rubble, burying your beloved or fleeing poverty. Mercy, kindness and generosity are needed in a hard luck world where, it seems, the gods do play dice.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/08/12/4066312/trying-times-remind-us-about-luck.html#storylink=cpy

 

Death Penalty and War

What do we want when it comes to war or the death penalty?

Fresno Bee, July 26, 2014

Federal judge Cormac Carney recently ruled that California’s dysfunctional death penalty is cruel and unusual because those who are sentenced to death are rarely executed. Since 1978 only 13 people have been executed in California, while more than 900 people have been sentenced to death. The average time spent on death row is 25 years. Execution in California is a matter of luck, not justice.

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Carney argues that the arbitrariness of the death penalty means that this punishment is not working to deter crime. Nor is it working as retribution. Neither of these moral purposes is fulfilled when executions are infrequent and random. Carney does not deny that the death penalty can be justified. Rather, he maintains that the current system does not live up to its own standards.

Carney’s argument raises the challenge of idealism and perfectionism in thinking about state-sponsored killing. He concludes that if the execution system does not live up to the ideal, we ought not employ it. One obvious response would be to fix the dysfunction in the system and make it less arbitrary. But until that is done, the judge ruled that executions are cruel, unusual and unconstitutional.

We usually don’t demand this sort of perfectionism. Schools, marriages and sports leagues rarely live up to our ideals. However, we don’t abolish them. Instead, we aim to reform them to bring them closer to the ideal.

Usually it is not wise to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Perfectionism sets up a false dilemma: either perfection or abolition. The perfectionist false dilemma can lead us to jettison valuable but imperfect things. It can also cause us to give up the effort to reform and improve.

But state-sponsored killing seems to require a special and more perfect justification. If we are bothered by the arbitrary and capricious nature of the death penalty, then we should be even more worried about arbitrary and random killing in war. Consider the problem of collateral damage in war. Enemy soldiers are legitimate targets of justified warfare. But noncombatants — innocent civilians — are not supposed to be killed. Unfortunately, modern wars kill noncombatants in large numbers.

Defenders of the morality of war argue that civilian killing is permissible so long as armies do not deliberately target civilians. Critics of war reject this subtle moral point.

Critics argue that bad luck and accidental factors cannot justify the killing of the innocent. Following Carney’s reasoning about the death penalty, a critic might conclude that war ought to be abolished until we can ensure that wars are fought without creating collateral damage.

The analogy between war and the death penalty is not seamless. We presume, for example, that the convicted criminal is guilty of a crime and deserves to be punished, even though some death row inmates have in fact been exonerated. On the other hand, we presume that noncombatants are innocent and do not deserve the harm they suffer, even though the mothers and children of soldiers can work behind the lines to support the war effort.

A form of skeptical pacifism can result when we insist on perfectionism with regard to state-sponsored killing.

Until state-sponsored killing becomes less capricious and more deliberately targeted, the pacifist will say, states ought not kill.

Those not convinced by this argument will have to reconcile themselves to the apparent conflict between the arbitrary and random nature of state-sponsored killing and perfectionist idealism about justice.

A perfectly just system of state-sponsored killing would only kill those who deserve death and it would kill them in a fair and consistent way. A perfect system of state-sponsored killing would not bomb children or apply the death penalty in haphazard ways. It would give people what they deserve. And it would bring about good consequences. But of course, in a perfect world we would not need executioners or armies.

This line of thinking leaves us with a difficult decision. Should we demand perfection, or can we accept something less than perfection when it comes to war and the death penalty? This is a crucial and serious question for democratic citizens, since in a democracy state-sponsored killing is ultimately done in our names and on our behalf.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/07/25/4040930/ethics-what-do-we-want-when-it.html#storylink=cpy

 

Bears, Bugs, and Backpacking on the John Muir Trail

Wilderness reminds us we’re not the center of everything

Fresno Bee, July 12, 2014 IMG_0469

I am writing this while hiking the John Muir Trail. The Sierra backcountry is beautiful and humbling. The wilderness reminds us that we are not in charge of the world.

When my children were young and we would go camping, I used to joke that after dark, the government turned off the rivers and waterfalls. We are so used to our civilized world, with its regular and predictable system of amenities, that city kids can make believe that rivers have on-off switches.

The wild world is, however, beyond our control. There are no on-off switches in the wilderness. The wind blows, the rain falls and bears come to camp. The marmots and mosquitoes go about their business. We like to think that we are the center of creation. But our narcissism is quickly corrected by a night under the stars. The Milky Way does not glow for us.

There is an old riddle about whether a tree that falls in the woods makes a sound. Of course it does. But usually only the deer and chipmunks hear it. Wild noises resound without any human presence. The birds don’t sing for us. Croaking frogs and chirping crickets don’t croon for our pleasure. And trees fall every day in hidden groves beyond human perception.

The natural world is profoundly indifferent to us. Even in your front yard garden, snails, weeds and worms are busy with their own lives. We work hard to control this wild vitality. But without constant vigilance, wild nature will soon destroy our handiwork.

The business of the birds and the bees proceeds without us. One day we saw two squirrels mating. We stopped to watch. But I felt somehow immodest. The squirrels live, mate and die here. We are just visitors, passing through their homes.

The wildflowers are blooming in the high country. We wandered through meadows rich with color. It is tempting to think that this beauty is on display for us. But flowers don’t bloom for human eyes. Like the squirrels, they are concerned with living and reproducing. Their beauty is not for us.

Not all wild things are charming or beautiful. The backpacker’s bane is the mosquito. These little vampires can quickly ruin a lovely campsite. But the mosquito’s bloodlust is not directed at us. If we were not passing through their habitat, they would find other prey.

One evening a bear came to camp. He sniffed us and circled our camp as we whistled and yelled, working hard to scare him off. I had the distinct impression that he was curious about us, wondering what these humans were doing in his home.

Some people do not to like wild things and wild places. A cold, windy, rainy night at 10,000 feet is no spring picnic. And sleep doesn’t come easy when you know that the bear knows where you are camped. But it helps to know that these wild things are just going about their own business. They do not intend to harm us. We merely happen to be in the way.

A philosopher and fellow backpacker once told me that he was more afraid of the other people he meets on the trail than he was of the snakes and bears lurking in the bush. Animals are merely wild, he explained. But human beings can be wicked.

Most of our fellow backpackers have been kind, generous and interesting. But humans demand recognition. The intensely human urge to be recognized by other human beings can lead to violence. Wars, rape and mass murder are human creations, malicious manifestations of the narcissistic need for recognition. Mosquitoes and bears only want a bite to eat. They don’t want to enslave, convert or conquer. Our species demands recognition, which leads to domination. That may be why we need governments. It may also be why we are so suspicious of them.

The backcountry buzzes and blooms without concern for human needs and interests. One lesson from this is humility, which deflates our vain desire to dominate and be recognized. The bears and bugs carry on without us. The rivers run without our permission. And the sound of falling trees is not made for human ears.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/07/11/4020947/ethics-wilderness-reminds-us-were.html#storylink=cpy

 

Lighten your load

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Lighten your load for a happier journey through life

Fresno Bee June 26, 2014

I am hiking the John Muir Trail as you read this. My 17-year-old son and I will walk over 200 miles through the Sierra from Yosemite to Mt. Whitney. By the time we are done we will have gained and lost some 45,000 feet of elevation.

The key to a long hike is a strong companion and a light pack. This is the truth of the trail. It is also a metaphor for life. Life is long, so lighten your load and find good hiking partners.

Whatever you carry will be on your back the entire way. A useful motto is “don’t bring it, if you don’t want to carry it.” That motto also holds for our psychological and spiritual loads. Leave regret, anger and resentment behind. Those negative emotions only weigh you down. It is sometimes difficult to move forward. But time marches on with or without us.

Our ancient ancestors were nomads, who followed the seasons and the herds. Our ancestors migrated to the U.S. and to California. The freedom of the wanderer is in our blood. Our forebears must have travelled light to get here.

But we are burdened by the weight of our habits. The older you get, the bigger your pack becomes, and the more difficult it is to move on. The longer you stay in one place, the deeper your habits become, and the harder it is to leave them behind.

There is a kind of elegance in traveling light. Traveling light means freedom. Without piles of stuff to weigh you down, you are always ready to ramble. But traveling light requires preparation. You have to pack carefully, with an eye to the difference between luxury and necessity.

What do you really need to lug with you? How much are you willing to carry? Most of the stuff that fills our houses is not necessary. Consider how much we eat — and throw away — during the course of a day or a week. A light pack contains few luxuries, maybe some chocolate or coffee.

But our culture encourages full pantries and stomachs. Advertising creates a need for more stuff. But if you had to carry that stuff around all day, you’d laugh at those who encourage you to buy more. Our nomadic ancestors would be amused.

I’ll admit that I like stuff, too. Even backpackers enjoy shopping for gear and groceries. But the process of trimming down your load forces you to evaluate priorities. You don’t need much to be healthy and happy.

Religions have long cultivated this sort of abstemiousness. Prayer and meditation turn the mind away from the loaded larders of our desires. The Sabbath is a weekly break from busy consumption. Some religions take a monthly break: Ramadan or Lent, for example. Take some time off. Give something up. Let something go. That’s good advice.

In our secular culture, the wisdom of the Sabbath is forgotten. Nor do we celebrate abstinence. A day without shopping is not good for business. Even our vacations are filled with frantic consumption. Indeed, we work harder during the week to be able to afford our weekend getaways.

There is wisdom in simplified daily living. Work enough to live decently. And use the rest of your time to explore and cultivate relationships with family, friends and the natural world.

A long hike is a kind of spiritual walkabout. You discover something about yourself and world by leaving home with only what you can carry on your back. When it all goes right — no rain, no blisters, etc. — the simplicity of the trail is a joy. You watch your step and walk until you find a good place to sleep. Other concerns slip away.

Hiking is walking meditation. Each step is simple and focused. Each creek crossing is a pleasure. Each summit is a triumph. Each night under the stars is a miracle. And each morning, we’re thankful for the lightness of our packs as we strap them on for another day.

It is invigorating to be part of that bustling wonder called civilization. We’ll be glad to get back to town. But there is also wisdom in the simplicity of the trail and the freedom and grace of traveling light

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/27/4000349/ethics-lighten-your-load-for-a.html#storylink=cpy

 

Yosemite religion

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Yosemite reminds us to enjoy rainbows while they last

Fresno Bee, June 13, 2014

As the Fresno Bee commemorates Yosemite history, we should consider Yosemite’s spiritual importance.  The Valley is certainly awe-inspiring.  It’s difficult to imagine not being moved by the view of Half Dome or the thundering spray of Yosemite Falls.  In some people, Yosemite elicits an experience that may even be called “religious.”

The “Yosemite religion,” as one of my colleagues calls it, is based in the experience of the transcendent power of nature.  It is connected to an ecological point of view that sees a continuum between human life and the non-human world.

If there is such a thing as the Yosemite religion, then John Muir is its prophet.  For Muir, religious experience is rooted in the beauty of nature.  He explained, “no synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.”  For Muir, the “sublime wonderlands” of the Sierra were manifestations of divinity.

Muir thought that city religions were weak imitations of the direct appearance of the divine in mountains, trees, and rivers.  Muir explained, “the hills and groves were God’s first temples, and the more they are cut down and hewn into cathedrals and churches, the farther off and dimmer seems the Lord himself.”  Muir saw himself as a modern John the Baptist.  He felt called to immerse people in “the beauty of God’s mountains” and spread the good news of Sierra transcendentalism.

Evangelizing on behalf of wilderness is necessary because most people do not see the value of the wild.  Some of Muir’s companions thought Yosemite was just a big hole in the ground.

As with any other kind of spiritual experience, receptivity and education matter.  Some people view Christian prayer as dull recitation.  Others see meditation as not much more than daydreaming.  And some people, I suppose, can look at a Yosemite landscape and see only a pile of rocks.

Yosemite can also provoke uneasiness and leave people anxious to return to the city.  The cliffs are daunting.  The waterfalls are intimidating.  And the idea of a bear in camp can make it hard to sleep.

Religions often propose a solution to our anxieties—through ritual, law, and spiritual practice, or through the intervention of a savior.  Civilization offers another remedy—by softening the hard parts of life and flattening out the steeps.  Civilization also keeps us so busy, that we do not think about the meaning of life—or the critters who roam the dark.

The Yosemite religion, however, offers no ritual, law, or savior.  The bears still rule the night.  The cliffs remain dangerous.  And the trails are steep.  Muir’s idea was to leave nature alone.  He also encouraged us to know the earth, its ecosystems, and our place within all of that.  Bears are less frightening when we understand them.  And mountaineers learn quickly to respect objective danger and know their own limits.

Ecological understanding does not always satisfy our narcissistic desires.  Cities and city religions celebrate the importance of humanity.  But wilderness reminds us of our mortality.  Earthquakes, glaciers, and rivers will eventually grind even the hardest mountain to dust.  Ancient civilizations have returned to earth, while the Sequoias have endured.

The indifference of wilderness may provoke anxiety.  But understanding can provide solace.  From the standpoint of geological time, the beauty of these rocks, waters, and creatures is as fragile and fleeting as our very lives.

I recently took a photo of my wife standing in the middle of a rainbow beside Vernal Falls.  The rainbow had appeared for a moment as the sun settled in the west.  And then it was gone.  We are incredibly fortunate to experience rainbows and share them with those we love.  But the mountains remind us that nothing lasts forever.

Muir did not lament death and change.  Rather, he celebrated the lavish abundance of nature and rejoiced and exulted “in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe.”

Yosemite does elicit joy and exultation—as well as gratitude and reflection.  Moments of beauty dawn for a moment and disappear.  We can’t hold them.  But we can love them while they last.  And if we continue to preserve these wild places, we hope that tomorrow our grandchildren may find their own rainbows beneath the ever-changing falls.

http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/06/13/3976526/yosemite-reminds-enjoy-rainbows.html

Murder, Resentment, Revenge, Respect, and Recognition

Love, respect cannot be taken by force

Fresno Bee, May 30, 2014

Another awful story of mass violence comes to us from Santa Barbara — another story of promising young lives destroyed by a nihilistic young shooter. The shooter left a manifesto, reprinted in the Los Angeles Times, that contains an example of the typically horrifying moral reasoning used by those who justify violence.

The murderer resented those who excluded and rejected him. He wanted to prove his superiority over those who failed to love and respect him. He equated violence and cruelty with god-like power. He felt he was giving his “enemies” what they deserved. Guns and mental illness are obviously involved. But the flawed moral argument that led to his dreadful and nihilistic conclusion is also to blame.

Physical dominance through violence cannot create love, admiration or respect (or god-like power). Bullies, terrorists and murderers don’t understand this. They resort to violence in an apparent effort to get what they want. But they also seem to know that the tool they employ is incapable of providing them with what they want. So they end up destroying the very thing they desire.

Murder and resentment are nothing new. Homer’s “Iliad” chronicles Achilles’ murderous rampage. Achilles kills everyone he encounters, without mercy, even desecrating his enemy’s corpse. The Bible begins with the envious Cain killing his brother Abel. The terrain of resentment and revenge has been explored in various ways by Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Shakespeare.

The Star Wars film series provides a contemporary example: Anakin Skywalker’s transformation into Darth Vader is fueled by resentful rage. The Santa Barbara manifesto fits this mold. A young man experiences rejection — and turns his rage against the entire world.

Literature, religion and popular culture remind us that villainous and vengeful pride leads only to the graveyard. But murderous young men seem not to care about this, willing their own deaths along with others — an absolutely nihilistic endpoint along the continuum of social instinct.

The experience of resentment and the desire for revenge afflicts us all from time to time. Who hasn’t felt insulted, excluded or envious? Who hasn’t been tempted to tell someone off or push back against an indifferent world?

When resentment rises, however, most of us are able to control it and prevent it from boiling over as vengeful rage. We learn that anger and revenge simply do not work to get us what we want. Most of us figure out how to soothe wounded pride with positive action. Instead of returning hurt for hurt, we learn that hard work, a sense of gratitude, the spirit of forgiveness, kindness, mercy, humor and love help to heal our wounds and create a better life.

Social philosophers describe the social world in terms of a struggle for recognition. We desire recognition by others. We feel resentment when we believe that we have not received the respect we deserve. Resentment is more than mere anger. It contains a moral judgment and develops when we believe that others should treat us better.

The agony of wounded pride is often deeper and longer-lasting than the pain of physical wounds. Resentment festers and broods, incubating plots for revenge. Revenge aims to pay people back for not giving us what we deserve, to take from them what they owe us.

But that is where resentment and revenge unravel. Violence takes what is not given, attempting to force others to give respect or love. But this destroys the very thing that is sought. Love, respect and recognition cannot be taken by force — we only receive them as gifts from others. Violence annihilates the conditions under which these social gifts can be given.

The struggle for recognition ought to properly lead to mutual recognition and reciprocal respect. This means that to be respected you have to work hard to earn it. To get love, you have to give it. And violence cannot get you what you want.

One moral of contemporary stories of mass murder is found in the resilience and compassion of the survivors. In the long run, positive social instincts such as empathy and care are much more powerful than the dark resentments that fester in the deranged minds of angry young men. Let’s hope that somehow someone will find a way cure these angry young men, so that these horror stories no longer keep happening in real life.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/30/3952685/ethics-love-respect-are-given.html#storylink=cpy

 

Moral Brain-Hacking and Moral Education

Science not enough, ideas and thought needed

Fresno Bee, May 16, 2014

Perhaps the solution to crime and other social problems is to fix people’s brains or dose them with love drugs. Moral brain-hacking might be a cheap and effective way to produce moral people.

Moral behavior appears to depend upon chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin acting in our brains. Paul Zac argues in his book, “The Moral Molecule,” that oxytocin levels are correlated with empathy, trust and love. A squirt of oxytocin can make people kinder and more trusting.

Brain structure also matters. Magnetic resonance imaging suggests that a sense of justice is located in the part of the brain associated with higher-level cognition. Antisocial behavior is linked to brain defects.

Locating moral behavior in the brain — and not as the free choice of an immaterial soul — may require us to rethink traditional ideas about guilt and responsibility, punishment and reward, praise and blame. If we follow the neuroscience, it might make sense to “punish” people by requiring them to take drugs or have brain surgery. Locking criminals in prisons with other people who have similarly defective neurochemistry may eventually seem, well, medieval.

Spiritually inclined people may be dismayed by this materialistic focus. Brain-based discussions ignore the soul and the moral conscience. Neuroscience dusts the angels and demons off of our shoulders, focusing our attention on the space between our ears.

Those who think that consciousness is distinct from the brain have to explain how Prozac, Ritalin, marijuana, and St. John’s wort are able to change experience, mood and focus. The attitude adjustment provided by a glass of wine or a cup of coffee can make you wonder whether there is anything more to the mind than the brain and its chemistry.

Some may feel that this materialistic focus misses the really big picture of why morality matters. If moral experience is reduced to brain science, traditional metaphysical notions of good and evil may be lost. A brain-based view of personality rules out punishment and reward in the afterlife. The move from the soul to the brain involves a radical reassessment of the meaning of morality and of life itself.

The focus on brains does, however, overlook the importance of ideas and education. Even if we admit that experience is based in the hardware of the brain, we still need the software of consciousness — ideas and theories — that allows us to interpret our experience. A dose of oxytocin may be able to stimulate empathy. But empathetic emotional responses are devoid of content.

Ideas and ethical theories tell us how to act on our emotional responses to the world. Does caring for a loved one mean I should pull the plug and let them die — or keep them on life support? Does empathy for murder victims mean that criminals should be executed — or should empathy extend to criminals?

To answer those kinds of questions we need ideas. Pills, potions and powders can only take us so far. The brain’s capacities and responses are channeled by the stuff of thought: ideas about right and wrong, theories of the good life, models and heroes, and the whole range of issues that arise in the context of moral education.

Ideas cannot simply be reduced to chemical signals in the brain. Does that mean that ideas float freely in a world apart from physical reality. There is a deep mystery here. What is an idea like “good” or “evil” made of? Where do ideas dwell? And how do we know them? Those kinds of questions can really blow your mind (or brain or soul?).

Neurochemical enhancement can’t entirely replace moral education as traditionally understood. Religion, philosophy and literature fill the brain with ideas that guide, bewilder and inspire. Neuro-ethical hacking may make moral education easier. But the neurotransmitters cannot tell us whether brain hacking is a good idea. For that we need moral argument and critical thinking.

Neuroscientific enthusiasm may lead us to miss the moral forest as we gaze in fascination at the neurological trees. Some of us could benefit from a chemically induced compassion boost. But a compassionate brain without moral ideas is empty. A moral person is both a brain and its ideas. And those ideas come from good old-fashioned moral education.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/05/16/3930743/science-not-enough-ideas-and-thought.html#storylink=cpy