David R. Hawkins died in 2012. He was 85 years old. At turns, Hawkins transitioned from agnosticism to atheism to belief in God. This progression seems correlated with education and experience but ends in philosophical belief. In each transition, Hawkins uses his intellect to form a philosophy that has appeal to many in search of life’s meaning. At times, Hawkins seems beyond reason but each step he takes offers insight to how one may live a more fulfilling life. Hawkins might be broadly characterized as a mystic. Even so, he was a formally educated, practicing physician, and psychiatrist.
Mysticism lies in Hawkins belief in human dualism, a belief dating back to Plato and adopted by many later philosophers. Hawkins dualism is belief in a distinct separation between mind and body. More precisely for Hawkins, it is a separation between mind and brain.
Hawkins becomes a mystic when he posits belief in a cosmic mind shared by all humanity. The power of this cosmic mind can cure all the maladies of humankind, both physical and mental. Hawkins implies this cosmic mind can cure physical disease manifested in the body. If you cannot see; if you cannot hear; if you cannot feel, your condition can be cured by a force of will that engages the cosmic mind.
This is a point at which Hawkins loses some believers. However, before one gets to a point of rejection, Hawkins offers wise counsel on how to live life and approach a level of what Abraham Maslow labeled self-actualization.
Hawkins argues that everything that happens in one’s life is because of the mind’s interpretation of the world. The mind gets trapped in Plato’s cave and only sees shadows of reality. Reality is obscured by what the human mind tells them. The mind’s interpretation of life’s events distorts reality. A child remembers a father’s or mother’s rebuke as an eternal judgement when reality may have been to protect a child from harm. The shadow is created and remains with the child for the rest of his/her life.
To escape the trap of Plato’s cave, Hawkins explains one must use their senses to accept the mind’s perception of reality and continually let it go until its negative power disappears. An example would be one who gets angry over some event or action and accepts the anger; looks at it, accepts it, uses the mind to understand why there is anger, where it is coming from, and then letting it go. In the process, one finds anger has no meaning other than what one’s mind gave it.
With continual use of this process, Hawkins believes individual minds tap into a cosmic mind that shows the world as it really is; not simply as shadows on a cave wall. There is wisdom in Hawkins’ perception of life and how one can more constructively deal with its vicissitudes. “Letting Go” is wise counsel for those troubled by emotional and/or physical trauma. However, the principle of a cosmic mind takes a leap of faith.
The Moral Animal: Why We Are the Way We Are: The New Science of Evolutionary Psychology
By: Robert Wright
Narrated by Greg Thornton
ROBERT WRIGHT (AUTHOR, JOURNALIST)
Robert Wright emboldens Darwin’s theory of evolution in “The Moral Animal”. Wright argues that Darwin infers evolution is biological, an all-inclusive generative theory. Not only is humankind evolving physically through natural selection, it is evolving psychologically.
Wright suggests every human action in life is determined by evolution.
The import of that conclusion is that all life is pre-determined at birth by evolution. Humans, like all others in the animal kingdom have no free will. Life is physically and morally pre-determined by evolution. Unlike Richard Dawkins, Wright wastes no time creating the idea of memes (inherited social customs) as a determinant of behavior. Wright suggests every human action in life is determined by evolution. In other words, Wright is saying he devil did not make you do it, and God is only a false construct of human evolution.
Wright argues that all life is based on arbitrary evolutionary changes in reproduction. Physical (genetic) and psychological (motive) changes that reinforce survival are pre-determined controllers of human behavior. Wright’s experimental evidence for physical evolution is research on human remains. His evidence for psychological evolution is advance in biological science.
The discovery of endorphin, serotonin, enzyme, and other chemical interactions that effect human behavior are markers for evolutionary change in human psychological influence and control.
Biological research shows that chemical interactions in the human body effect psychological behavior, just as genetics effect physical being.
Physical and psychological correlation with evolution changes one’s view of civilization and its discontents. It is not only suggests the death of God’s omniscience and control, but the death of free choice. Humans are born programmed; programmed to be good and evil. Humans kill, cheat, lie, and steal. At the same time, humans build cities, create art, love others, and sacrifice their lives for something greater than themselves.
Without God; without free choice, where is morality, where is good will, where is value in living? Wright suggests morality evolves into normative ethics, an ethics of pleasure as long as pleasure’s pursuit does not harm others. Wright’s idea is that humans level their moral behavior using a “tit for tat” penalty/reward system designed by evolution. A precursor of this philosophy is inferred by Epicurus in 4th century BC but evolves into utilitarianism in the 19th century.
Without God; without free choice, where is morality, where is good will, where is value in living? Wright suggests morality evolves into normative ethics, an ethics of pleasure as long as pleasure’s pursuit does not harm others.
Wright argues that humankind historically demonstrated sympathy, empathy, compassion, conscience, guilt remorse, and justice. Whether evolutionary or God-given, these moral beliefs are historically exhibited by civilization.
Civilization benefits from these feelings. Wright argues that penalties for violating rules of doing no harm to others are a part of a “tit for tat” evolutionary psychology that sustains civilization. Whether this idea reflects God, evolution, or free-choice; “tit for tat” offers a morally grounded philosophy that has pragmatic and utilitarian value. It helps humans feel better or worse, depending on their side of the “tit for tat”.
Wright suggests Freud was on to something in the idea of id, ego, and superego. Wright endorses Freud’s suggestion of homo sapient need for social interaction and the libidinous nature of humanity. However, Wright believes Freud took the idea too far when suggesting humans have a death instinct or Oedipus complex. Neither a death instinct nor Oedipus complex makes sense in an evolutionary world where replication of life is the essence of being.
English ethologist, evolutionary biologist and author.
In summary, like Richard Dawkins, Wright is saying human beings are only replicating machines; without God; without free will, and dependent upon the arbitrariness of natural selection.
Books That Have Made History: Books That Can Change Your Life
Written by: Professor Rufus J. Fears
Lecture by: Professor Rufus J. Fears
J. RUFUS FEARS (1945-2012–AMERICAN HISTORIAN, LECTURER FOR THE GREAT COURSES)
Rufus Fears is an excellent story-teller. “Books That Have Made History” is a series of lectures given by Fears that dwells too much on God but delightfully entertains all who are interested in living life well. (Professor Fears died in October of 2012.)
An irony of Fears lecture series about “Books that can Change Your Life” is his most revered historical figures, Confucius, Socrates, and Jesus–never wrote a book. He thematically presents a story that argues these three figures are witnesses to the truth.
Fears believes Confucius’s, Socrates’, and Jesus’s truths have been played out and proven over centuries of writings and doings. Those writings and doings are recorded in secular and religious texts that range from Homer, to Plato, to the “Bible”, to the “Koran”, to “The Prince”, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Winston Churchill, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Bonhoeffer is Fears first example of one who practices what he writes about and believes.
DIETRICH BONHOEFFER (1906-1945, Bonhoeffer was arrested in 1943 and transferred to a Nazi concentration camp and executed in April 1945. Bonhoeffer is a symbol of moral and physical courage in the face of injustice.)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer insists on returning to Germany to protest Hitler’s totalitarian dictatorship. As a Lutheran pastor and theological scholar, Bonhoeffer publicly denounced Hitler’s persecution of the Jews. This is Fears jumping off point in arguing that theism as professed by secular and religious texts are “Books That Can Change Your Life”.
Justice, courage, moderation and belief that “wisdom comes from suffering” come from Homeric literature, the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Plato’s “Republic”, the King James Version of the bible, and the holy Koran. Fears emphasizes the transcendent impact of “Book of Exodus”, “Gospel of Mark”, and “Book of Job” as they become memes for moral belief.
In the “Book of Exodus” Fears notes the story of Moses and how Moses leads the Israelites out of slavery, a story repeated throughout history by the courage of moral leaders.
The “Gospel of Mark” tells the story of Jesus, the sins of man, and the redemptive powers of forgiveness, and justice.
The “Book of Job” symbolizes life as a struggle but, in struggle, one gains wisdom through faith in something greater than oneself.
FREE WILL VS. DETERMINISM
Fears draws from many cultures to explore “Books That Have Made History. He explains how the “Bhagavad Gita” identifies truth as a divine power and how stories like Gilgamesh and Beowulf suggest life is destiny, fated when one is born, while Aeschylus believes life is a matter of free will.
Plato posits duality of being with a mortal body and immortal soul. Religious and secular writings reinforce Plato’s concept of human duality.
PLATO’S BELIEF IN DUALITY-SEPARATE ENTITIES-BODY AND SOUL
The immortal soul is terribly and beautifully rendered in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”. Dante describes torments souls endure if mortal life is lived in sin, but offers belief in redemption.
DANTE’S INFERNO Dante describes torments souls endure if mortal life is lived in sin, but offers belief in redemption.
Buddhist belief in reincarnation offers a road to peace or continued struggle based on mortal life’s actions.
A Buddhist soul’s reincarnation may be as a beast if one’s former life is filled with sin. But as each new life approaches enlightenment, it is offered opportunity for peace without struggle in a spiritual life that requires no further incarnations.
Fears moves back and forth in history to identify some of the “Books That Can Change Your Life”. He jumps to the twentieth century to tell the story of Winston, the defeated hero in Orwell’s “1984”.
Fears explains how totalitarianism sucks struggle out of life but leaves dead bodies or soulless automatons in its wake. Fears notes how Stalin murders twenty million in a totalitarian system similar to what Orwell wrote about in the late 1940s.
Fears reinforces his argument by jumping back in history to tell the story of “The Prince”, Machiavelli’s masterpiece about totalitarian rule. Just as predicted in “The Prince”, Stalin lives to old age (lived to be 74, died in 1953) by following the rules set down in Machiavelli’s 16th century book. Stalin murders or imprisons any opposition to his rule. Stalin’s single minded objective is acquisition and retention of power. Stalin’s objectives are achieved through a police state that controls media, arbitrarily arrests citizens, and acts without moral conscience.
ALEKSANDR SOLZHENITSYN (1918-2008, RUSSIAN NOVELIST AND ESSAYIST)
Ironically, Fears notes that Solzhenitsyn returns to Russia and vilifies capitalist America for ignoring the plight of the poor by losing sight of its own values.
Fundamentally, one takes from Fears’ lectures that one must internalize morality and have the courage to follow truth regardless of its cost. This is a lesson for today in the face of an American President who cares little about truth and has no moral compass.
Stalin’s terror is revealed in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s “The Gulag Archipelago”, published in 1973. Solzhenitsyn dies in 2008, near Moscow, at the age of 89.
This is only a smattering of the many books Fears talks about in his lectures.
Mo Yan chooses to use reincarnation to bind China’s twentieth century history together. The choice of reincarnation adds humor but suggests something more than laughs.
By Chet Yarbrough
Life and Death are Wearing Me Out
By Mo Yan (Translated by Howard Goldblatt)
Narrated by Feodor Chin
HOWARD GOLDBLATT (TRANSLATOR OF MO YAN CLASSIC)
Cultural understanding is missing from Howard Goldblatt’s translation of Mo Yan’s “Life and Death are Wearing Me Out”. Mo Yan chooses to use reincarnation to bind China’s twentieth century history together. The choice of reincarnation adds humor but suggests something more than laughs. The story begins with a murdered man who comes back as a donkey, then as an ox, a pig, a dog, and finally as another man—funny, but is there rhyme or reason in the order?
MO YAN (AUTHOR)
Mo Yan’s story begins with China’s communist revolution and the unjust murder and confiscation of a landowner’s farm.
China becomes communist in the 1940s under the leadership of Mao Zedong. Communism seeks re-distribution of private land into cooperatives to benefit the many at the expense of the few. Mo Yan’s story begins with China’s communist revolution and the unjust murder and confiscation of a landowner’s farm.
The murdered landowner is Ximen Nao. After death, Ximen Nao falls into an imagined purgatory to, presumably, be cleansed of his sins. Despite severe torture, Ximen Nao refuses purgatory’s judgment of his sin. In consequence, or happenstance, he is reincarnated as a donkey. The twist in his reincarnation is that he remembers his former life. Returning to life as a donkey, he meets former employees, a wife, two mistresses, and his children.
Ximen Nao, as a donkey, returns to his homeland and finds that his former employee has married one of his mistresses and is farming 6 acres of his confiscated land. Ximen Nao, the reincarnated donkey, gains a grudging respect for his former employee because the employee steadfastly resists public ownership (being part of the communist co-op) of property and insists on being an independent farmer. (Communist China’s law allows a farmer to be independent of a cooperative if they choose to work the land themselves.)
During the Communist revolution, Ximen Nao is murdered. After death, Ximen Nao falls into an imagined purgatory to, presumably, be cleansed of his sins. Despite severe torture, Ximen Nao refuses purgatory’s judgment of his sin. In consequence, or happenstance, he is reincarnated as a donkey.
The former employee and his new wife become emotionally attached to the donkey because they believe it is a reincarnation of an important person in their lives. (Later, Ximen Nao’s wife consciously acknowledges that the donkey is a reincarnation of her husband.) The independent farmer and his wife cherish the donkey’s existence and its aid in farming the land. Several incidents involving the donkey reflect on life in China during Mao Zedong’s reign.
Mo Yan straddles acceptance and rejection of communism and China’s current form of capitalism. His story skewers both political systems. In Mo Yan’s story, communism and its belief in public ownership are defeated by human nature’s drive for independence. The independent farmer lives through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and witnesses the return of a capitalist form of property ownership. Mo Yan denigrates communism’s intrusion in family affairs and how it turns son against father, brother against brother, and compels women to choose between family and a communist’ collective way of life.
Mo Yan straddles acceptance and rejection of communism and China’s current form of capitalism. His story skewers both political systems.
Mo Yan shows how singular pursuit of wealth corrupts morality; how leisure becomes more important than caring for others or working for human improvement.
Capitalism and its belief in unfettered freedom are also ridiculed. Mo Yan characterizes capitalism in a story about the lives of spoiled youth. Youth that live off their family’s wealth; living for adventure; denigrating love, productive work, and respect for tradition and family. Mo Yan shows how singular pursuit of wealth corrupts morality; how leisure becomes more important than caring for others or working for human improvement.
Is there some significance in the order of Ximen Nao’s reincarnations? Ximen Nao is first reincarnated as a donkey, then as an ox, then as a pig, then as a dog, and finally as another man. It is a clever way of observing history through the prism of different animal’s lives. It also makes one wonder about humankind’s ethnocentricity and failure to respect all living things.
Finding the right balance in life is an overriding theme in Mo Yan’s story. As the inscription on the temple of Apollo at Delphi suggests, “Nothing in excess”; Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and many others have suggested moderation in all things. Mo Yan suggests that both Chinese communism and capitalism fail to offer the right balance in life.
The Modern Scholar: Ethics: A History of Moral Thought
By: Peter Kreeft
Lectures by Kreeft
PETER KREEFT (PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT BOSTON COLLEGE AND THE KING’S COLLEGE)
Professor Kreeft, in The Modern Scholar’ lectures, offers stories of interesting philosophers and what they think they know about moral thought. “Ethics: A History of Moral Thought” is a whirlwind tour of how philosophers define ethics. It begins in antiquity and continues through tomorrow.
What one hears in these lectures may be accepted and practiced in life tomorrow or never; if never, one is seemingly confirming belief in free choice, but not much more. As a warning to the curious, the tour is circular. The tour ends as it begins.
Socrates (469-470 BC-339 BC-estimated age 71)
Wisdom is characterized by Socrates as—“I Know Something That I Know Nothing”. Kreeft recounts Socrates’ story of being told by Apollo’s Oracle that he is the wisest man on earth.
Socrates does not believe what he is told by Apollo’s Oracle. He proceeds to prove the Oracle’s error by asking questions of wise men in his day. In the process of questioning, Socrates finds no one can convincingly answer the questions he asks.
Socrates concludes the Oracle is right. He is the wisest man in the world because he knows that he knows nothing. Others say they know, explain what they know; believe they know, but show (from Socrates’ questions) they know nothing.
Kreeft moves on from the ancients to Aquinas (1225-1274), Machiavelli (1469-1527), Hobbes (1588-1679), Locke (1632-1704), Rousseau (1712-1778), and Sartre (1905-1980) to reveal the truth of Socrates’ aphorism. Each of these philosophers open new doors of explanation to human ethics but each door leads to empty rooms.
Aquinas acknowledges happiness as a goal in life. To Aquinas, happiness is defined by union with God, the Father of divine virtue.
The cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, courage, and justice. Aquinas believes, to the degree humankind follows the cardinal virtues, he/she finds happiness. The logical extension of this philosophy is that there is no chance of happiness without union with God, a God defined by its believers–a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, who?
NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI (1469-1527)
Kreeft explains that Machiavelli removes the idea of virtue and ethics from the concept of happiness and suggests the exercise of power is the source of happiness.
Machiavelli views mankind as innately evil with happiness as reward from the pragmatic use of power; power gathered by any means necessary. Machiavelli argues that being feared is more important than being loved. “Might makes right” in Machiavelli’s observation of the world; virtue is superfluous in the face of force. The logical extension of this philosophy is tyranny of the many by the few.
THOMAS HOBBES (1588-1679)
Kreeft notes that Hobbes believes, like Machiavelli, mankind is innately evil. However, Hobbes suggests societies form into communities to mitigate human’ evil through the creation of laws exercised by a great Leviathan, a powerful monster.
The logical extension of Hobbes belief is big government that proscribes laws to mitigate mankind’s inherent evil.
John Locke (English philosopher 1632-1704)
In contrast to Hobbes, Kreeft explains John Locke’s argues that mankind is basically good and freedom-to-compete in a marketplace for goods and property will result in a balanced community of interests.
The logical consequence of Locke’s philosophy is smaller government but only theoretical happiness because competition generates win/lose consequences that amplify community’ inequity.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)
Next, Krefft’s analysis of Rousseau opens a door to the French Revolution with the idea of “The Social Contract”. Rousseau believes in the innate goodness of man and argues for the rights of assembly and representative government to establish standards for the common good. The consequence of that belief is mobocracy in the “Great Terror” of the French Revolution.
In more modern times, the rise of Sartre’s philosophy brings ethics into the 20th century. Krefft describes Sartre’s philosophy as relativist. Sartre is an atheist. He argues that the world is indifferent to all life forms. People are free but their freedom comes with responsibility. Without God, all things are permissible but the individual bares the consequence of his/her action. Sartre believes everything is defined by relationship to an “other”.
JEAN-PAUL SARTRE (1905-1980)
Sartre suggests human beings live in a state of oppression. What he means is people choose to emulate others rather than be themselves. They are oppressed by working to stay up with the Joneses rather than fulfilling there own desires.
David Riesman (1909-2002), a sociologist, wrote a book titled “The Lonely Crowd” that exemplifies Sartre’s concept of oppression. Sartre suggests we can break that bond by recognizing the oppression and choosing independent self-actualization or authenticity.
This is an existentialist philosophy that demands knowledge and understanding of oneself.
Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)
Oddly, existentialism began with a religious philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard. Sartre is known as an atheist. Every person is his/her own god. Ethics are situation-ally determined with individual’ acceptance of responsibility; every person is an island.
A logical extension of this ethical belief is that societies breed iniquity and distort truth and leave every person on their own path to happiness.
From Krefft’s lectures, one begins to believe human beings are good and bad by nature. Aside from “Knowing One’s Self” and “Knowing that I Know Nothing”, there is no philosophy that adequately defines virtue or ethics that would predict any kind of Utopian future.
If happiness is the goal of life, its attainment by an individual or a society remains a mystery.
Nearing the end of Krefft’s lectures, he addresses attempts of science to define morality and ethics. Krefft acknowledges observation’ analysis dates back to Machiavelli and his views of history but the scientific movement gains momentum with David Hume (1711-1776), Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), and John Stewart Mill (1806-1873). It seems none of these “users of the scientific method” shed much light on the subject.
Finally, Krefft lightly covers eastern philosophy’s approach to morality and ethics. One fundamental difference between western and eastern beliefs is eastern belief in reincarnation versus western belief in a one way ride. A second fundamental difference is the belief in eastern’ culture that human beings are both good and bad while western’ culture believes humans try to be good but are seduced into being bad.
Krefft suggests an eastern religion may pass a dying person on the sidewalk because he/she fears interference with reincarnation. In contrast, a westerner might pass a dying person to not be involved, or with a belief that a dying person’s problem is not my problem.
Krefft also notes that eastern philosophy is by nature a “let be” view of life with a concerted effort to leave worldly concerns to their own destiny.
Western philosophy is more proactively involved in defining and practicing, or failing to practice, morality and ethics.
By the end of Professor Krefft’s lectures, a listener returns to Socrates suggestion; i.e. “Know thyself” because “The un-examined life is not worth living”.
What you believe is what you believe, but Krefft seems to suggest we should always seek to understand why.
DR. JEFFREY L. KASSER (ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF PHILOSOPHY AT COLORADO STATE UNIVERSITY)
This is a tough audiobook to adequately summarize. Dr. Jeffrey Kasser offers evidence for the value and advance of human knowledge through philosophy and science. Kasser explains that philosophy is the beginning of what becomes a scientific world view. Kasser attempts to drag skeptics out of Socrates’ cave with a “36 lecture” series titled “The Philosophy of Science”.
Kasser recounts the history of science from a world controlled by fickle gods to a world of cause and effect. Then, in the early twentieth century, Kasser notes that science reveals a world of probability. Kasser reports on views of science changed by philosophers like Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, and Bas van Frassen.
KARL POPPER (1902-1994) Popper suggests science cannot be proven but only falsified. His point is that only infinite experimentation can prove the truth of a scientific theory.
Infinity, by definition, is boundless; therefore, science offers limited truth in so far as no one can reach an infinite number of experiments to prove a theory.
PAUL FEYERABEND (1924-1994)
Feyerabend argues that scientific method is a constraint rather than exploratory tool of science. To Feyerabend, when science begins with hypothesis, research is restricted and experimentation becomes biased by pre-conceived or experienced perception.
Bas van Fraasen (Philosopher)
Bas van Fraassen suggests that, at best, science can only reveal approximate truth about the physical world. His view lends itself to quantum physics where cause and effect become probabilistic rather than definitive.
These three philosophers, as well as several others noted by Kasser, steer science to a category of understanding called logical positivism. Logical positivism is argued to be the primary focus of what is called good science. Logical positivism suggests that science must be based on direct experience and logic; within limitations like those argued by Popper, Feyerabend, Frassen, and others.
However, Kassen suggests even logical positivism is challenged by the realization that acts of analysis, particularly measurement of results, distort reality.
Distortion comes from the act of measurement and the bias of human cognition. In other words, experiments done by different scientists with the same results remain only qualified scientific truths. Experimentation, even accompanied by logic, becomes suspect. Observational measurement and human perception are critically important to science but, by nature, both measurement and perception taint objective truth.
Kasser explains the truth of science lays in experiment designed to disprove hypothesis. Logic generates hypothesis. Hypothesis is tested for falsity through experiment. Experiment requires measurement. Science experiment is influenced by measurement and human perception which raises doubt about results of tested hypothesis.
SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1642-1727) Kasser notes that Newton’s laws infer a cause-and-effect world
Newton’s laws work in the macro world. We no longer believe rocks fall to the ground because they live there. Newton’s laws of motion suggest that a bowling ball and a basketball will fall at the same rate of speed, even though their mass is different. This is experimentally and logically provable. If a rock, bowling ball, or basketball are picked up and dropped, they will fall to the ground. If they are in a vacuum, they will fall to the ground at the same rate of speed.
In the micro world, components of atoms that combine to form what we see as bowling balls and basketballs cohere to each other in a way that does not conform to Newton’s laws. The components of atoms operate in accordance with quantum mechanics which shows that elements of atoms in bowling balls and basketballs do not follow Newton’s laws of motion. The orbital planes of atomic elements like quarks and leptons appear and disappear; i.e. they do not follow a predictable pattern of action.
Cause and effect in the macro world is replaced by probability in the micro world.
None of this is to suggest that Newton’s laws are false or that quantum mechanics are anything more than an expansion of Newton’s laws. However, at this stage of scientific discovery, the two laws are not compatible even though both laws are experimentally confirm-able. Attempts have been made to unify these laws. String theory is the present day most studied hypothesis but it fails the criteria of null hypothesis because of today’s instrumental and cognitive limitations.
Philosophy and science are integral to the advance of human civilization. We are still looking at shadows of reality but Kasser infers philosophy and science are the best hope for Socrates’ spelunkers.
By: Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, Donald M. Frame (translator)
Narrated by Christopher Lane
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, a sixteenth century philosopher and writer, wrote and re-wrote “Essays”, originally published in the 1580s. Essay was a new form of writing. Montaigne’s subject is the philosophy of life and death.
Montaigne writes his collection of essays while cloistered in a château in southwest France. Donald Frame translates and compiles three volumes of Montaigne’ essays into one book–“The Complete Essays of Montaigne”, first published in 1957.
Montaigne, born into a family of wealth, affords the luxury of time for personal reflection and contemplation. Not surprisingly, Aristotle wrote that life depends upon awareness and the power of contemplation. In one respect, this quiet life is a contradiction in Montaigne’s philosophy. Montaigne reflects on history and ancient times to explain how life should be lived when his life seems a shadow of most people’s reality, the reality of a day-to-day fight for survival. There is reader skepticism about the 1% life of Montaigne versus the 99% life of most people.
Montaigne, with great family wealth and a storied education, becomes a Mayor of Bordeaux. He draws on a privileged life and recorded lives of great philosophers and leaders to create insight about lives of those that “do”, and have little time, or no time, to contemplate.
Montaigne suggests the appeal of his essays lies in the middle of the human population. Montaigne suggests the in-between are those who are not highly intelligent, who are abysmally ignorant; preferentially plebeian, and ordinary. In other words, people of course nature and manner, like this critic. In spite of this elitist leaning, the wisdom noted in Monsieur Montaigne’s essays is enlightening.
This is a one thousand page journey with something for everyone. Montaigne suggests humans need to embrace life and eschew tragic interpretations of death. Life and death are only stories of being. Death is inevitable and should not be feared. Death should be embraced like life; it is merely a final act, a denouement of life; well or poorly lived. In Montaigne’s opinion there are justifications for ending one’s life volitionally but only for valued reason.
Montaigne suggests women may choose to kill themselves rather than be raped. Men may choose to kill themselves and murder their families to avoid enslavement by an enemy. The defeated may kill themselves if mortally ill or wounded. To Montaigne, euthanasia is permissible at death’s door. Today, the lines are only slightly more clearly drawn and only in a few of the American States (like Washington, Oregon, Montana, Vermont, and California).
Montaigne is Epicurean in the sense that he believes living life is meant to be a pursuit of pleasure. However, the pursuit of pleasure is not defined by money, power, or prestige. Those pleasures are diminished by their attainment because they are insatiable human desires.
When one makes more money than needed to sustain life, he/she buys more of what is not needed. Those “not-needed” things become human’ handcuffs. Owners worry about losing things; worry about replacing things; worry about keeping up with neighbors. Life becomes an unending accumulation of things that fail to satiate desire.
Power never rests. Power is always moving like an electron around a nucleus of followers. Leaders are enslaved by followers.
Leaders worry about followers, worry about competition for position, worry about their place in history; they die alone just like every human being. Power is an ephemeral pleasure that never rests in one place.
Prestige comes from respect of fellow human beings. It is outside the control of the seekers or the chosen; it is limited by the opinion of others; it changes like the direction of the wind or the habits of the culture within which one lives.
Montaigne attacks cultural shibboleths that are based on unfounded reason. Because one says the earth is the center of the universe does not make it so but a universe of fiction may grow around a culture of mysticism that defies the natural state of being. Montaigne insists on skepticism when confronted with culturally reinforced habit that is not bound by nature.
Pleasure lies in self-understanding; doing what one is best at; and letting go of life when it fails to improve self-understanding or keeps one from valuing existence. Montaigne cites many ancient philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, and Lucretius that reinforce his arguments.
Plato drives the point of virtue as the human characteristic of doing what one is best at doing. Montaigne notes that both Plato and Aristotle emphasize the importance of education for self-understanding. Self-understanding inures to the benefit of humankind by revealing to each what they are best at and giving them tools (through education) to be the best they can be. Montaigne insists on learning; not rote memorization, but clear understanding. Montaigne argues that it is not reciting what someone has said but understanding what is meant by what is said. This is a somewhat ironic statement in view of Montaigne’s voluminous quotes from dead philosophers.
Montaigne reflects on his upbringing and his Father’s drive to educate his son by making Latin Montaigne’s first language, the language of scholarship in the 16th century. Montaigne did not only live the life of a scholar. He was elected mayor of Bordeaux before retiring to his cloistered existence as a writer of the “…Essays…” Montaigne applauds his father for providing him an education and infers that every family is obligated to support education of their children.
Montaigne died from complications of tonsillitis at the age of 59. Frame’s translation of Montaigne’s essays offers a philosophy of life in a horse-size pill. It encourages the old but escapes the young because life happens too fast.
As George Bernard Shaw notes, youth is wasted on the young; probably because they are too busy for contemplation. “The Complete Essays of Montaigne” is an insightful guide for the conduct of life and the acceptance of death.
36 Arguments for the Existence of God By Rebecca Newberger Goldstein Narrated by Stephen Pinker, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Oliver Wyman
Rebecca Goldstein writes like Stephen Pinker on steroids. (Coincidentally, Goldstein is married to Pinker.) Goldstein’s novel is not the story one expects from its title because “36 Arguments for the Existence of God” is about denial; not affirmation of existence.
A more apt title for Goldstein’s book might be “The Science of Human Nature Denies the Existence of God”.
Goldstein has done a masterful job of creating “fear and trembling” in believers. This is “fear and trembling” in the opposite sense of Soren Kierkegaard’s meaning. Kierkegaard’s meaning awakens believers in God. Kierkegaard, an author, theologian, and philosopher, argues one should fear and tremble at the truth of God’s existence.
On one level this is a story about a man named Cass Seltzer and his personal (sometimes romantic) relationships.
On a second level it is about human ethnocentrism. Characters, including Cass Seltzer, see through myopic eyes based on who they have become and what peer group they belong to.
On a third level “36 Arguments…” is about human nature and cultural memes (Richard Dawkins defines a cultural meme as an inherited learned behavior).
On multiple levels, Goldstein’s writing is about the elephant in the room; i.e. mankind’s belief in a Supreme Being.
The story of Cass Seltzer’s life is absorbing. The women he loves are monumentally independent, fantastically alluring, and maddeningly self-centered (as self-centered as Cass Seltzer). Each character believes what they believe with conviction that directs their lives.
The introduction of Felix Fidley exemplifies tribal ethnocentrism and conviction; i.e. a believer who says one way is the only way.
Ms. Goldstein cleverly introduces the town of New Walden. Its isolated belief system reflects the heritability of good and bad genetic markers and memes that trap people in worshipful repetition. One might categorize it as a cult or, more politely, a commune.
Finally, Goldstein creates a straw man debate about God, The debate is conducted in the next to last chapter. It pits Cass Seltzer against a purportedly renowned debater. Seltzer beats his debate opponent. Believers in God lose. In the last chapter, 36 arguments for belief in God are stated and refuted.
One doubts Goldstein will change the world with her book but its rational arguments are a big add to the non-believing world’s arguments for a scientific theory of the world that explains everything about everything.
If you are a believer, “36 Arguments…” is a clear explanation of your battleground; it reveals the manifesto, strategy, and tactics of a non-believer. Faith is always a refuge but is it enough?
“36 Arguments for the Existence of God” is a fascinating piece of literature.
Asabiyyah: What Ibn Khaldun, the Islamic Father of Social Science, Can Teach Us About the World Today
Written by: Ed West
Narrated by: P. J. Ochlan
Ed West offers a brief introduction to the life of an ancient historian. His name is Ibn Khaldun. Khaldun describes the first known evolutionary theory of human origin. West also notes this 14th century scholar creates the first known socio/political theory of the rise and fall of civilizations.
Khaldun explains life’s origin as a congregation of chemicals and minerals that create organic life and, in turn, evolve into different species. West notes that Khaldun suggests humankind evolved from monkeys. This is four centuries before Darwin’s “Origin of Species”.
Ibn Khaldun is considered by some to be the first person to write foundational theories for modern sociology, economics, and demography. West notes that Khaldun explains how nations are formed, maintained, and destroyed by sociological, economic, and demographic forces.
Khaldun offers councel to the great conqueror, Amir Timur (aka Tammerlane), who plans to resurrect the 13th century Mongol empire built by Genghis Khan. (Timur is said to have caused the death of over 17 million people in the effort.)
West suggests that Khaldun explains how Timur and other rulers, from the Roman empire to Genghis Kahn to Timur successfully conquered great areas of the known world. His explanation is “Asabiyyah” (aas-sah-bee-ah), a theory that all successful conquerors establish a social environment that creates solidarity among a group of people through shared understanding, purpose, and achievement.
West explains that Khaldun expands “Asabiyyah” to a theory of civilization’s rise and fall. As evolution grows and humans proliferate, tribes form based on family affiliations. Religion widens family relationships to create tribes that become a congregation of different families with common beliefs. Tribes grow into larger groups based on evolved common beliefs. At each step of widening common interest, a leader rises from the ranks. With an accretion of social ties, villages, towns, and cities are formed with a leader at its head. As the ties that bind continue to expand, nation-states are formed.
West shows that Khaldun goes on to explain how civilizations decline. First, Khaldun notes that sons and daughters of great leaders rarely exceed their parent’s leadership success. Khaldun posits the current social and scientific belief of “reversion to a mean”. Each subsequent offspring of a great leader comes closer to the average of a civilization’s population. Leadership diminishes in succeeding generations.
Second, Khaldun suggests diminished common beliefs lessen a civilization’s cohesion. Religious differences rise, economic circumstances change, social groups fracture, family ties reassert themselves as ties that are more important than community. The example that Khaldun gives is Rome’s decline as a world power. West suggests the same may be said of the United Kingdom’s decline.
West’s “Asabiyyah” makes one think of America. Does today’s political conflict reflect diminishment of commonly held nation-state belief? Is the increasing gap between rich and poor destroying the social fabric of America? Has the American Dream become a lie few believe in? Are elected officials withdrawing to their families at the expense of nation-state’ leadership?
According to West, Khaldun believes nationalism is critically important for a civilization to remain strong. Is that true today, or are we crossing a threshold where the principal of nation-state needs to be expanded to include a wider community? Is the next step reflected by the E.U. or some similar congregation of nation-states?
In the time of Khaldun, there was no vehicle for common beliefs except a leader’s influence over conquered nations. Today, there is an internet. It seems the human family may once again, be expanded. Nation-states may not be prepared for “space-ship-earth” but there may be an interim step.
That interim step was tried during the cold war with the U.S.S.R. It failed. The E.U. is facing challenges today. America appears to be regressing with emphasis on making itself great again. The leading question is whether civilizations are competing to be in decline or ascendance?
Of course, leadership is key to any future. Right now, there seem few leaders that can make civilizations grow beyond their borders. Khaldun seems as relevant today as he was in the 4th and early 5th centuries.
Psychological unease accompanies Jeremy Narby’s erudite speculation about the meaning and origin of life in “The Cosmic Serpent”. The unease comes in two forms. One, is Narby’s seduction by hallucinatory experience. Young people in America are choosing to overdose rather than face today’s perceived reality. The other is Narby’s patterning of observations to create either a true or false belief. It reminds one of the potential of Einstein’s discovery of matter and energy equivalence. Einstein discovered falsifiable evidence of nuclear fission that holds a key to sustainable energy. He also opened the door to Armageddon.
Narby, like Timothy Leary, is educated at some of the best universities in the world (Leary at Harvard; Narby at Yale). Both have PhDs. Narby has a PhD in anthropology; Leary in Psychology. Few, if any, believe LSD (Leary’s hallucinatory drug of choice) offers insight to the origin and meaning of life. However, like Leary, Narby suggests hallucinatory drugs may be a pathway to understanding.
Regarding hallucinatory experience, Narby does not appear to have slipped into the bizarre behavior of a Timothy Leary; at least not yet. Narby is 59 years old. When Narby did his research, he was in his late 20s and early 30s. “The Cosmic Serpent is published when Narby is still in his 30s. Leary lived to be 76. Each passing year exaggerated Leary’s belief in the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs.
Patterning is the human ability to see structure in disparate facts and events. Some say this is the sign of genius. Einstein is said to have formulated a theory of time by riding a train. Einstein’s insight came from thinking (patterning) how time is relative based on a person riding a train and a stationary observer watching the train pass. However, patterning also leads to incorrect conclusions like a person’s recollection of a crime. Human brains are shown to manufacture events and facts to make stories complete rather than necessarily accurate.
Narby’s articulate presentation of Peruvian shamanism tempts seekers of knowledge and experience to try something new. The temptation comes from different sources. One is genuine interest in understanding more about the world and our place and purpose in it. Another is the desire to believe that there is something more important in life than wealth, power, or position.
“The Cosmic Serpent” suggests that native cultures around the world offer insight to the origin and meaning of life because of common hallucinatory experiences. Narby suggests the hallucinatory symbol of a winding serpent is evidence of the configuration and importance of DNA; long before Watson’s and Crick’s discovery. The inference is that shamanistic hallucinations are not mere symbols but a truth of life. Narby’s inference is that seekers of life’s truth should listen to the experience of shamans and pursue shamanistic experience through the studied use of their methods.
Narby argues that the scientific community needs to widen its view of the world. He believes DNA holds the secrets of nature’s existence. The question is whether youth and science should accept the risk of Narby’s patterned belief?
At the least, Narby makes one appreciate the importance of native culture. He may be opening a worthy field of scientific research. On the other hand, Narby may be creating false expectations that offer ignorance and escapism, rather than research and science.