There is no Perpetual Motion

I’ve been reading, lately, about the second law of thermodynamics. I guess physicists have figured out that the transfer of energy will invariably result in a net loss (you know, carbon emissions and such); entropy will invariably increase over time until heat distribution reaches equilibrium and the last star blinks out, which will occur, according to sound estimates, sometime in the distant future. That is, the universe will remain functional and in existence for a very, very long time. Physicists are pretty sure about this and who am I to question learned scientific minds.

No matter how dark things may look at present, even if the world we know and love loses its capacity to sustain life (through every fault of our own), there will, I truly believe, be stars somewhere out there supporting planets where life will be sustainable. Stephen Hawking is pretty sure that, to his reckoning, we probably should be looking for such places in the interests of species survival.

I feel optimistic about such thinking: on a planet in a galaxy far away perhaps politics will be less offensive.

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Unity of Opposites

It’s come to my attention recently that the 19th century German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel offered a theory of historical progression that seems somehow appropriate to our contemporary times. The general rule that history will follow, Hegel thought, is that any thesis will face its contradiction, after which a synthesis of the two will occur.

Now, I’m no scholar mind you, but I can’t help thinking about this in relation to our current political upheaval. For some time now it has seemed to me humankind was making significant humanistic strides toward pluralistic understanding and acceptance. Appreciation for cultural variety, tolerance for the other and compassion toward the less fortunate not to mention a sound scientific understanding of the threats to our natural environment seemed to be reaching consensus levels.

But suddenly the very antithesis of these ideals has reared its ugly head. We have found ourselves face to face with our most base instincts; hatred and fear of the Other, isolationist divisiveness, blatant disregard for unpopular scientific research and an anti-intellectual disinclination toward thoughtful dialogue.

So, Hegel would have us believe this dichotomous situation will work itself out, some sort of middle ground will stabilize things, compromises will be arrived at.  I must admit I’m having a hard time visualizing what that peaceful compromise might look like.

The Good

I’ve been wondering, lately, what it might mean to realize the Good. I’m thinking of a Good separate from self-interest, an over-riding abstract Good that might be found within our everyday worldly experiences. A Good beyond the ugliness that comes to us so regularly, that we are all too often made aware of, that the media is so quick to introduce and dwell on.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about it, looking around and I think I’m getting glimpses of it (the Good that is). I’m sensing people performing truly altruistic acts, no ulterior motives involved. I’m encountering what seems to me to be truly benevolent unsolicited encounters with total strangers. I see a thriving natural world with healthy eco-systems and vital animal populations. There is definitely good to be found if one looks for it.

A Good such as this, I suspect, must be God.  Or, perhaps I’m being overly optimistic.

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Easier Answers

According to the 19th century psychologist William James, man creates the world he inhabits. The path one takes, says Mr. James, may focus on ugliness or beauty, a man may choose to concentrate and relate to the Good or the Bad. The idea here is that faith is required: an acknowledgment of that which is beyond the empirical, outside the domain of scientific certitude: the realm of God and immortality.

Which seems to imply the need for perspective: that the natural world isn’t all there is, suggesting those in the ‘natural world only’ camp will have a much harder (impossible?) time maintaining an optimistic view of things, of remaining positive, of retaining and maintaining a high moral outlook.

On a personal level, to my mind, there is no doubt considerable energy is required, as our daily travails weigh upon us, to stay upbeat all of the time; even most of the time. Still, if it’s perspective it takes to stay on one’s preferred path I wonder if the only play is the metaphysical one. Mr. James suggests unless one is oblivious, we’ve already made our choice: skepticism in moral matters is an ally of immorality; who is not for is against, he says.

Answers to the big questions must have appeared much clearer back then.

Evolutionary Ethics and the Contemptible

There’s thinking these days that Biological evolution, natural selection, will result in ever increasingly capable survivors, generation after generation, better suited to exploit and thrive within their changing environment than were their ancestors in theirs. From the perspective of increasing prosperity alone, there appears little need, biologically, to embrace any sort of ethical stance. Cooperation between these increasingly fit beings will likely occur only in so far as personal interest is concerned. So, I’m wondering, is our evolutionary destiny to be increasingly inundated with assholes?

Yet, altruism does exist. Clearly humankind does embrace certain ethical standards. Generosity toward others certainly occurs; empathy is a true emotional response for many. There are those among us who make for a kinder, gentler society where cooperation means lifting everyone to a state of reasonable well-being. I have to wonder, in the next millennium, assuming humankind is still around, where the emphasis will lay; I have a feeling Friedrich Nietzsche would have had thoughts on this.

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Moral Entitlement

I’ve been reading, lately, about the idea of moral entitlement: how some people assume privileges others are denied. Or, to put it another way: some individuals and groups feel themselves morally entitled to take advantage of those they consider lesser or inferior.

I have no doubt such situations have existed, probably, for as long as man has walked the earth. A sense of superiority on the part of some accompanied by the complementary assumption of inferiority by others is pretty well embedded in our psyches. This idea has perpetuated social class and sectarian divisions that continues to account for dissonance and conflict.

One can argue the moral illegitimacy of such stratification, I suppose, but what I find more curious and annoying is the ego driven individuals who assume unjustified advantage. I suspect such people and/or groups will realize the idealistic beliefs that have led to their divorce from mankind must be tempered in the interests of everyone’s basic social needs. One can hope so, anyway.

Natural Selection

I’ve been thinking, lately, how natural selection manifests itself in myriad ways among plants and animals: adaptation to changing environmental conditions ensures survival of species. And, individuals with superior survival skills pass on their genes to ensure superior off-spring better capable of surviving and thriving in harsh natural environments.

It seems in some ways unfortunate similar evolutionary progress doesn’t happen among humans where mating practices appear to be pretty thoughtless with regard to what sort of off-spring might be produced, you know, in terms of the capabilities needed to deal with life. The less-able results of indiscriminate coupling are, of course, cared for by the more able and humane where as in the animal kingdom such unfortunate progeny would certainly parish.

Still, it seems to me compassion should rule the day. I do think virtuous behavior toward the less fortunate should be expected of thinking beings, but, being thinking beings, mankind might do well to think before passing on seed.

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A life of contemplation

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it would be like to go off someplace where I could live more simply; someplace away from the distractions of the ever-depressing news of the day and the energy sapping ego conflicts of the workplace.

I could spend my days contemplating the inherent nature of existence; I could immerse myself in the eternal flow of life. I would find my center and be at one with all things. You know, like St. Anthony (the ascetic) did.

For nearly forty years Anthony lived a hermetic existence in the desert existing on the rare crust of bread offered him by passing pilgrims. He rid himself of all desires of the flesh in the belief that through asceticism ultimate truth would be revealed to him.

There was one night, though, when hedonistic desires descended upon him like a torrential downpour. He wanted, wanted, wanted: good food, good drink and women of any sort. All night he suffered. He fought back with every ounce of his energy. When morning finally came Anthony was spent from the night’s exertions but was also strengthened in the knowledge he could overcome temptation. His commitment was renewed, but, with it, the fear of even greater tests to come.

I guess one has to assume, then, the contemplative life may not be wonderful all the time; I’ll definitely have to temper the ascetic part.  Still, I relish the possibilities, you know, developing some deeply profound insights. I may even enjoy an occasional hallucination.

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Ecological Truth

Traveling cross-country along the endless concrete ribbon, wastelands appear with unsettling regularity. Rather than the natural wastelands of little water and poor soil, (which, I must say, I find personally appealing, due, in part, to the clear lack of adulteration) the wastelands I’m finding unsettling consist of the architectural ruins of abandoned strip malls and the cast-off remains of excessive consumption: plastic bags, destroyed shopping carts, unidentifiable Styrofoam and cardboard pieces, TV and microwave carcasses: detritus of all sorts.

I suppose, at this point, it would be appropriate for me to spin the story of my own Spartan existence. How I live hand to mouth, without frills or material comforts of any sort and how I donate any extra resources I may acquire to the truly needy. But, the fact is I’m as guilty of accumulating excesses as the next materialist; I know I have more than I need. I can offer a nearly unending list of things I have more than one of, where one is clearly sufficient.

On the one hand, I wish it were otherwise, but, on the other, I guess my consumption is a good thing in some ways. I’m fairly constantly reminded, via multiple media outlets, that the economy must grow to be healthy, that if it stagnates it will not be a good thing, so, I guess I have a responsibility to do my part.

Which, I must say, puts me in a paradoxical position: while I feel a moral obligation to try to limit my consumption, considering the finite nature of the earth’s resources, I’m obligated to buy, buy, buy; and then to discard, discard, discard. Maybe I can focus on a bit more recycling and a little less discarding without upsetting the delicate balance between consumption and privation.
And, maybe, the commercial industries and their advertising associates could temper their rush to profits in favor of a bit more ecological thoughtfulness.

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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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