Moral Constructivism

I’ve been reading, recently, something that has me thinking about how morality might be most effectively approached these days. The book, which I would categorize as apocalyptic Sci Fi, tells a story of societal breakdown in the not too distant future. Those who can live in gated enclaves as a means of protection against gangs of homeless riffraff without moral qualms of any sort intent on theft, murder and mayhem. As the situation deteriorates and the enclave is over run, our protagonist, a teen age girl of significant capability, is forced to flee.

Our heroine is no ordinary teenager. She has, over her few short years, compiled a book of verse, a spiritual system, defining god in terms of the realities she faces as civilization collapses. Her notion that ‘God is change’ addresses the primary needs of the people who face disruption and displacement in this dark future world. Survival, she understands, will require flexibility.

As the story moves toward resolution, a small group has banded together and seems to have arrived at a moral understanding based on mutual needs and respect. Coexistence demands an ongoing exchange regarding moral priorities; change is the rule and openness to change must always be on the table: God is change.

The reader is left uncertain as to what the future holds for our small group, but, as I think about it, it seems to me their thinking about morality gives them a much better chance of survival than had they latched onto either a moral absolute or a relativist position.

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Poetic Naturalism

I was reading the other day that what we are, when it comes right down to it (way, way down I might add) is ‘collections of vibrating quantum fields, held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature.’* Vibrating one-dimensional strings or sub-atomic particles organize themselves to form our senses and memories, record and qualify our experiences which are then interpreted in language containing personal pronouns which identify self and, voila, we awaken and become conscious of our individual selves.

It’s a great story, a believable narrative that answers a lot of questions about our unique natures and our reality as we conceive it. There are, of course, other narratives. On a macroscopic level our complex beings seek out and find entities beyond the physical that on occasion reach out and touch us, make us aware of the magic in a changing natural world; give us the capacity to embrace beauty, to love others than ourselves, give us courage in the face of adversity, offer a benevolent overseer to rule our very existence.

There are without a doubt other narratives as well. The question we need to ask is: which stories carry the greater validity, answers the most questions, accounts for nature as we know it. I must admit I’m often swayed by a well stated thought which leads me to embrace, for the moment, the ideas of poetic naturalism, seeing as how it is so convincingly backed up by theoretical physics.

So, for now I will embrace the beauty and complexity of a naturalistic view and set aside explanations requiring any sort of supernatural participant. At least until the next new, well-thought-out conception comes my way.

*credit to Sean Carroll for this wonderful summation.

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Crowds

I found myself, recently, in the midst of large numbers of people. The atmosphere was festive and most everyone seemed fairly convivial and, I must admit, for a time I found myself pleasantly embraced within the mass of humanity.

But, it wasn’t long before I began to feel a bit uneasy, being, as I am, generally averse to extended time in public. As time went on the pleasant demeanor I sensed in the crowds earlier began to dissipate and take on an ominous malevolence. The gentle jostling I had experienced as people moved toward a better view of the festivities I now found aggressive and unpleasant.  I didn’t feel the need to run for cover exactly but move away from the congestion I did. As I approached the perimeter of the mass of people I stopped and turned to view the crowd. From a distance the mass of humanity was less intimidating and I found my composure restored.

As I now reflect on it all the experience was really more than tolerable and I can again embrace my deeply held empathy for mankind and the difficulties everyone faces, you know, just dealing with daily life. I guess the key for me is to stay off the stage, take a seat in the balcony as long as it’s not too crowded.

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Entropy in Five Words or Less

I’ve been trying to make sense, lately, of what exactly entropy is. Entropy is apparently a very important concept applied by physicists to help explain the Big Picture, relating to the workings of the universe in sub-atomic terms. I guess it has something to do with heat distribution: how hotter things like the sun give off heat as energy which is absorbed by cooler things in an ongoing move toward systemic equilibrium.

When the Big Bang happened, so the story goes, entropy began, and, over time, continues to increase so that atomic configurations grow ever increasingly complex and chaotic which is the point in time we are right now. But, eventually all this chaotic complexity will blend together in a homogeneous soup and everything will return to a state of equilibrium as the last star blinks out.

Which all seems somewhat understandable, but then we’re told entropy continues to increase even though everything will have been reduced to undifferentiated matter, which is pretty hard to understand. And this is not to mention the idea that entropy measures the amount of work that CAN’T be done using available energy and the whole concept can be reduced to mathematical formulae.

So, my understanding of this illusive concept remains in the shadowy grays if not quite the complete dark, and I’m left with little choice other than reducing the concept to: the measure of change over time. I know this must be terribly simplistic but I’m pretty confident it’s all I really need to know about entropy.

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Into the Wilderness with Others

I’ve recently returned from a trip into the wilderness with others. And, while my companions were most congenial, offering, as they did, opportunities to share sights and sounds, I found the experience lacking in ways it’s taken me a while to identify.

Most of my treks into the wilds in recent years have been done solo. Traveling alone means extended times of solitude and contemplation which is really refreshing initially, but, after a while I will inevitably find myself missing conversation. At some point I always seem to experience a descent into psychic depths of a fairly profound nature. And, although these mental travels are not always pleasant they provide me an ultimately refreshing reassessment of my existence. Not exactly an epiphany every time you understand, but usually by the end of my adventures I do sense a nuanced change of perspective.

So, the recent trip with companions to insulate my psyche from its otherwise likely meanderings was a clearly different experience. But, after all, placing one’s self in a situation where nature has the clear upper hand, whether with others or alone I think is pretty worthwhile no matter where one’s psyche might wander off to.

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Story Lines

I’ve been thinking, lately, about the multiple story lines that can be thought of as true regarding one and the same experience. That is, a single experience can be explained by emergent explanations, closed systems within themselves. (That have nothing to do, I might add, with political ulterior motives.)

For instance, the object and actors in any experience are composed of basically the same kinds of atomic particles, the movements of which are a complete story or explanation of the event. One could refer to this idea as the Atomic explanation of the occurrence. Then, we can consider the experience in a biological context, how the natural order will lead the actors to predictable behaviors and interactions related to basic physical survival instincts. This, too, provides a complete story in itself.

A psychological story line would focus on relationships and feelings. How actor #1 responds to actor #2’s need for acceptance by the group and, maybe, how the groups’ social dynamic will thereby be affected. On the metaphysical plane, a supernatural agency will oversee events and will ultimately figure in the experiential outcomes. Faith and belief will be required by the actors who wish to tap into the god’s benevolence for no other means are available to affect their destinies.

I guess it’s pretty clear why conflict is so prevalent these days. It seems to be human nature to seek out those of like perspectives, exacerbating divisiveness. Thankfully there are those who can move between these closed story lines and find and promote understanding of differing views, offering hope of finding some sort of common ground. I’m thinking our very existence may depend on it.

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The God Particle

I’ve been trying to make sense, lately, of what science, particle physics in particular, tells us is the underlying structure of the universe and everything in it. Apparently, there is a “core theory” which informs us that the sub-atomic building block of all matter is something referred to (simplistically according to Mr. Higgs) as the God Particle, which, as I understand it, is a really, really small item that has never actually been seen by anyone.

To further complicate things these incredibly tiny particles occur as wave lengths in vibrating fields which make up everything from the planet Jupiter to the fly currently resting on my living room window. The whole system is in a constant state of flux driven by energies like gravity and electromagnetism.

As mysterious as this all seems, and physicists freely admit there are many questions still unanswered, the underlying consensus is that Quantum Field Theory is sound as far as describing what kinds of things can’t occur in nature as we know it. Certain supernatural powers, such as telekinesis, QFT tells us, simply can’t occur because the energies manipulating the universe on a sub-atomic level aren’t strong enough to allow anyone’s mind to bend a spoon or send knives flying across the room while sitting sedately at the kitchen table.

I think, though, the jury’s still out on mind on mind occurrences like extra-sensory perception. Who’s to say all those quarks and things flying around electromagnetically in vibrating fields aren’t interconnecting Mind somehow. Anyway, I certainly find it all fascinating to think about. I look forward to our noble physicists finding more answers to the big puzzle.

 

Opposing Views

I’ve been reading about the dichotomous philosophical views held by the French in the 19th century. One perspective held the great classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were beyond compare and, therefore, a sound basis upon which to guide one’s life. The views of these Neo-Classicists held to staid ideals of beauty and truth exemplified by the ancients, the message being the past holds the principles by which to live.

The other view extolled the virtues of man’s passions. The spirit of life was seen in the serendipitous nature of human existence. These Romanticists championed the flow and flux living presented to the man truly alive. Living fully in the present was pretty clearly the message here.

Interestingly, these opposing views were manifested in the arts of the time. The Neo-Classicists looked to linear emphasis in the imagery on Greek pottery and to the subdued color they found in the art of the ancients they saw on their pilgrimages to Rome. Their more immediate champion was Nicholas Poussin. The Romanticists relished the baroque twists and turns they saw in the paintings of Peter Paul Rubens. Their preferred palette contained the bright colors they found in the exotic cultures of the Near East.

These op positional views fed off of each other; the first staunchly absolutist and rational the second spirited and life-affirming. The first extolled their virtues against the decadence of the second; the second, their flexibility and pluralism against a rigid didactic ism. A lot of great art was created in 19th century France and I’ll bet a big part of the immense creative output was the result of these tensions.

So, I wonder, if everyone everywhere suddenly witnessed an unmistakable ‘Ultimate Truth’, undeniable in any way, so remarkable that all doubt was erased from every mind, what would be the result? It seems to me, even the idea of peace would be meaningless; without opposition there would be nothing to believe.

I can only hope that sort of truth will never become known.

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Cultural Evolution

I was reading recently that cultures with the best chance, over time, of sustainability, most likely to expand and grow, are the ones which nurture an undercurrent of irrationality. When it comes to cultures, dominance depends on size and stability, and in the case of human cultures it appears the ones most likely to excel are those whose practitioners are most willing to sacrifice self-interest to the betterment of what they see as their cultures superiority, as delusional as that may be.

The underlying current driving these successful cultures is, and has pretty much always been religious beliefs that contain a supernatural overseer whose job it is to instill mutual trust, sometimes through a mutual understanding of the dangers of opposition, keep the populace on the straight and narrow and fiercely committed to correct belief and action. Unfortunately, sometimes beliefs turn in to dogma, intolerance develops and anything not orthodox becomes heretical and conflict rules.

I have to wonder if the cultural upsides of these irrational currents override the downside.

 

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Intuitive Thinking/ Analytical Thinking

I was reading the other day that psychological research suggests that those folks who think intuitively are more likely to embrace a personal god than people of a more analytical mind set. Apparently, as it turns out, those who base their thoughts on instinctual understanding are inclined toward a mind/body dichotomy, a separation of the mental and physical that presupposes an existence beyond mortality and lends itself well to religious belief. On the other hand, the analytically minded, using reason to frame reality are far less inclined to figure in any sort of supernatural agency when defining the Big Picture.

I’m inclined to think that most of us harbor a bit of both mindsets, at least, I know that I do. I, alternately, seek to reason and understand and sense and accept the presence of the unknowable. Psychology suggests it’s far easier to embrace the intuitive, which is a more natural mental state, while analytical thinking requires hard work, pushing the intellect to find order in the complexities of the world. Finding a balance, for me, isn’t so easy. I can peacefully revel in the beauty of nature where the supernatural lies in wait and then find myself working pretty hard to make logical sense of what I experience around me.

I guess I’ll just have to let my mind go where it will, relax in intuitive oblivion or analytically battle the difficulties before me, as my energies dictate. I have time for both.

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