Seeking wisdom in dark times

Fresno Bee, January 5, 2020

This past year, things got foggy. We were confused by fake news and conspiracy theories. We had a hard time seeing beyond partisan division. A kind of spiritual darkness – racism, hate, greed, and anger – lurked in the shadows. Let’s hope that in 2020, we can see more clearly and spread more light.

The goal of the Western philosophical tradition is enlightenment. Immanuel Kant, the great German thinker, said that we should “dare to be wise.” Enlightenment requires us to have the courage to think for ourselves.

Enlightenment is not simply another word for knowledge. Knowledge grew in amazing ways during the past decade. But it is not clear that we are more enlightened.

We have probed into deep space and into the subatomic realm. We know how to edit DNA and make clones. We have discovered planets orbiting distant suns. Human spacecraft visited Pluto and left the solar system. We have learned more about evolution and the history of life. We also understand the perilous impact of human development on the climate and our planet’s ecosystem.

SEEKING WISDOM

But what good is all of this knowledge without a moral compass and an engaged wisdom? Wisdom situates knowledge within a larger context. Ethical insight leads us to do good with our knowledge.

Philosophers have long worried about knowledge that lacks ethics and wisdom. Bertrand Russell, one of the great philosophers of the 20th century, warned that knowledge without “comprehensive vision” is dangerous. Knowledge of atomic energy created the threat of nuclear weapons. Knowledge of power and propaganda creates the threat of authoritarian politics.

Russell defined wisdom as emancipation from the tyranny of here and now. This gives us a clue about how wisdom is to be found. To be wise is to look up, look around, and look within.

For two and a half millennia, philosophers have called upon us to seek wisdom by seeing things more clearly. Plato suggested that most people are slaves to darkness. We sit in dark caves, he said, looking at flickering images. These images confuse us about reality. We don’t know how to distinguish right from wrong or how to live well. If we could leave the darkness of the cave and see the light, Plato said, we would be good and happy, just and wise.

Plato knew nothing of television, the internet, virtual reality and artificial intelligence. But what he said about life in the cave of ignorance is appropriate to our century. We passively consume images. Our thumbs move across screens. Our eyes flit across the page. Algorithms collect data about us, generating more images for us to consume. Our minds are washed by waves of infotainment. Our bodies grow soft. Confined within silos of information, the human spirit becomes warped. And the social world grows more divided.

One crucial solution is to clean the lenses of perception by learning to think critically about the images that surround us. But clear vision is useless if we look in the wrong direction. Sharp-sighted sociopaths and keen-eyed kleptocrats are very good at manipulating images and seeing how to hurt and take advantage.

We also need to look in the right direction. We need to look up from our screens and take a look around. Most importantly we need to look within. It is self-knowledge that helps us see how bias, prejudice and self-interest cloud good judgment and narrow our point of view.

JESUS’ PARABLE OF THE GOOD SAMARITAN

Narrowed vision is a common human problem. A hint about this is found in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. Several people walked past a needy man. Either they looked at him but did not see him, or they saw him but quickly looked away. The hero of the story saw the man’s need. He did not look away. And he took action to make things better.

That’s what enlightened insight looks like. Clear vision helps us see reality as it is. But wisdom should also lead to action. To be wise is to see things clearly, to see them wholly, and to see what needs to be done.

So let’s seize the new year as an opportunity to gain wisdom and seek enlightenment. This is a challenge for this year, this decade, and for a lifetime.

Violence has no moral authority

Violence has no moral authority, discredits any cause and does no practical good

Fresno Bee, September 1, 2017

Violence will always be with us. There is something in common between the street battles in Berkeley and Charlottesville and the saber rattling over North Korea. Millions also tuned in to watch Mayweather fight McGregor.

Violence is alluring. It attracts our attention. Our fascination with fire and fury is morally problematic. When a fight breaks out on a playground, kids rush to watch. No one really cares which side they are on.

Not everyone is enamored of violence. There are more anti-hate protestors than there are haters. But a few people are always itching for a fight. Others egg them on. And the rest of us watch awestruck and spellbound.

There is a whiff of transcendence in violence. Adrenaline, pain, and the risk of death are stimulating. The heart races and the senses focus. Like sex and extreme sports, violence can elevate and inspire.

Aggression is hard-wired in brain – especially the masculine brain. Buried somewhere in the male limbic system is the evolutionary residue of the mammalian struggle for mates and dominance.

But we are not animals. The world’s moral and religious traditions demand that we control aggression and limit violence.

Socrates suggested that it is wrong to return harm for harm. Jesus told us to love our enemies. The Taoist sages advised harmonious nonaction. South Asian traditions prescribed ahimsa or nonviolence.

Unfortunately the Paleolithic brain is often immune to the counsels of civilization. Anger and aggression are subrational. Young men fight without thinking about what they do.

Some people offer justifications for violence, making exceptions to moral commandments. Some think that violence can be productive. They view it as a tool to advance a cause. Terrorists often rationalize violence in this way.

But justifications of violence are morally flawed. An immoral tool should not be used to advance a noble cause. Morality requires a unity of means and ends.

Violence infects and discredits any cause it is associated with. When a riot breaks out at a political event, the riot becomes the story. Violence undermines political agendas and destabilizes political movements.

Violence can be effective, in the short-term. Intimidation and coercion do work to change behavior. Violence runs some people off, scaring them away. It also attracts thugs. But it does nothing to persuade people to change their minds.

Violence is stupid. It stupefies, stuns and awes. But violence makes no argument and gives no reasons. Violence is not intelligent, clever, or insightful.

As brute force, violence brutalizes. Violence dehumanizes because it treats persons as objects to be manipulated through physical power. Violence does not listen or respect human needs. Instead it pushes and pulls the levers of pain, seeking dominance and control.

Violence has no moral authority. The victors are not more virtuous than those they defeat. They are only more powerful. Victory depends upon physical prowess—and often on good luck. It does not depend on moral rectitude.

Violence feeds on itself. Bloodlust is stimulated by fear and the desire for power. Those appetites and emotions overwhelm our rationality. Thus violence incites more violence.

The tit-for-tat of violence slowly simmers. Hatred and resentment fester. A careless spark can cause quick and fatal escalation. Violence is chaotic, unpredictable, and contagious. It stimulates backlash and blowback. And it tends to spread.

Violence only creates lasting change when it becomes excessive and permanent. The logic of violence thus points toward totalitarianism and final solutions that eliminate all enemies.

Violence makes no argument, utters no truth, and cherishes no value. It cannot deliver liberty, justice, or happiness. Violence tears down, destroys, and destabilizes. But it cannot transform and uplift the human spirit.

Violence cannot give birth to a child, build a community, create justice or sustain a way of life. The work of birthing, building, creating, and sustaining is nonviolent. It requires love, patience, tenacity and wisdom. Those are human values that have evolved beyond the Paleolithic brain.

The good news is that most of us understand that violence is subhuman. We know that a human world depends upon rational argument, cooperative activity, love and justice. The challenge of the future is to further discredit violence. And to find ways to further sublimate the sinister impulses of our mammalian brains.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article170511697.html

A Philosopher’s Back To School Advice

Advice for making the most out of school

Fresno Bee, August 21, 2015

  • Back-to-school is a time to reflect on education
  • Philosophical advice to students emphasizes curiosity, courage and compassion
  • Education requires effort, virtue and a passion for wisdom and justice

 

To my sons and my students, as we head off to school, here’s a philosopher’s perspective on education.

No one can learn on your behalf. Learning is an activity. It requires effort. You must actively seek the light.

Intelligence, virtue, and happiness are not genetic. No one is born smart, kind, or happy. Everyone has the potential to improve – or to fail. But improvement is up to you. Be systematic in your studies. Cultivate a disciplined work ethic. And nurture your passion for learning.

Develop curiosity, courage, and compassion. Curiosity opens the door to new ideas. Courage follows those ideas. Compassion allows you to understand why others choose differently.

Education is supposed to be difficult. It is easy to fill your cup with trivial knowledge. But opening your mind to the ocean of wisdom is a lifelong task.

Listen carefully and question everything, including your need for certainty. Don’t believe everything you read or hear. Test dogma and inquire into common sense. Distrust those who want blind obedience. Ignore those who offer cheap grace and easy enlightenment.

Challenge authority; but remember that rebellion and doubt are tools, not destinations. Cynics are unhappy and friendless. Healthy skepticism is modest. It must be balanced with a sustained commitment to what is true and good.

Find mentors – teachers, coaches, and friends – who inspire you. The best teachers and coaches encourage without indoctrinating. They increase vitality by arousing our thirst for excellence.

Teachers are not entertainers or playmates. They criticize and evaluate. It’s not easy to receive criticism. But criticism helps us improve. Learn from your failures and work harder next time.

Be proud of your accomplishments. But don’t rest on your laurels. Celebrate what you’ve achieved today. Tomorrow there will be new challenges.

Cheer for other people’s success. Friendly competition invigorates. It makes everyone better.

Choose your friends wisely. Find friends who are smarter and more virtuous than you are. Good friends energize and uplift. They support your best efforts and console you when you fail.

Bad friends undermine you and reinforce bad habits. Avoid them. But be gentle with bad people. Some are wicked. But most are misguided and unhappy. Be prudent about social relations. But never lose faith in humanity.

Avoid gossip, rudeness, and disrespect. Be careful and courteous when asserting your own opinions. Think before you speak. But always say what’s on your mind. Avoid know-it-alls; and don’t become one. Remember: no one – not even you – can possibly know it all.

There are no shortcuts for learning to live well. Cheats and liars occasionally succeed. But they cannot succeed forever, since they lack what they pretend to have.

There are no “do-overs” in life. Misdeeds can never be undone. Happiness depends on knowing that that you deserve to be happy. A clear conscience is a necessary condition for a happy life.

Of course you will make mistakes. We all do. Forgive others and forgive yourself. But hold yourself to a higher standard. You are, after all, in control of your own life.

You are not, however, in control other people’s behavior. Help when called upon. But allow others to live as they see fit.

You will be homesick at times. Nothing good lasts forever. You will eventually say good-bye to everyone you love. Grief is a part of life. It is relieved by doing good works, making new friends, and rebuilding what is lost.

Find a cause worthy of your loyalty and stick with. A meaningful life is thick with loyalties and commitments.

Fight against injustice. But avoid rage, which burns without building. Justice also requires kindness, patience, and a creative imagination.

Educational institutions can alienate and frustrate. Bureaucratic authority is often ridiculous. But you are a person, not a number. Don’t become a cog. Demand respect and give it to others.

Life is more important than school. Don’t neglect your health. Exercise and eat well. Make time for love, leisure, and laughter. Create spaces of solitude and seek out spiritual experience.

And remember that education is a privilege. Some people don’t have the chance to go to school. Show gratitude for this opportunity by filling your cup, opening your mind, and creating a good life. And share what you’ve learned with others who are seeking the light.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/religion/article31837581.html#storylink=cpy