Out of a living silence

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Self-reliance means being helpless

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There is a persistent funny form of suspicion in most of us that we can solve our own problems and be the masters of our own ships of life, but the fact of the matter is that by ourselves we can only be consumed by our problems and suffer the shipwreck.

—Harry Stack Sullivan (February 21, 1892–January 14, 1949)

Like most high-school students in in the early 1960s, I had an assignment to read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay called “Self-reliance.” So much time has passed since then that I no longer recall what impression that essay made on me, aside from recalling what is perhaps the best-known quotation from that essay: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” That’s as much of the quotation as I have remembered for most of my life. The passage in which it occurs provides more context:

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. — ‘Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.’ — Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood.

Over the decades I have encountered several people who took false comfort in the last line of that passage by reasoning, fallaciously, that if to be great is to be misunderstood, then to be misunderstood is to be great. Such people usually assure themselves, without evidence, that they are misunderstood.

As much as I admire Emerson’s writing style—what writer has not wished he or she could have written any number of Emerson’s beautifully crafted sentences?—being little-minded as I am, I find myself in fundamental disagreement with not only that famous quotation but also with the very idea of self-reliance.

Emerson wrote “Self-reliance” in 1841, a time when many Americans were caught up in the myth of self-reliance and staunch individualism. That myth became especially strong after the Civil War as people of European descent became preoccupied with colonizing the American West by wresting lands away from Native Americans and imposing their values upon the peoples who had lived there for millennia. The romantic heroes of that mythology were the pioneers and the cowboys. According to that fanciful narrative, the pioneers and cowboys were independent-minded freedom-loving white men, and their obedient women, whose sole desire was to be left alone, especially by anything resembling Government. That mythology is still alive among many Americans who show their self-reliant individualism by driving pickup trucks and wearing cowboy hats, even if they are bankers or real-estate agents living in downtown Denver or Phoenix. To prove one’s rugged individualism, it is important to dress and behave and talk like all the other rugged individualists in one’s neighborhood.

As an aside, I should make it clear that although I went to high school in a suburb of Denver, I never wore cowboy boots until I went to college in Wisconsin and had to prove to those midwesterners that I was a true son of the Wild West. During my high school years I was in hot pursuit of a different fantasy, namely, that I was a beatnik, which I proved by wearing huarache sandals, a beret and shades. My body was in a suburb of Denver, but my soul was in Greenwich Village, a place I could not find on a map of Manhattan. But I digress, as is my wont.

As the decades have rolled by, the idea of self-reliance has increasingly revealed to me its fraudulent nature. Simply put, there is no such thing as self-reliance. There may be a few—a very few—people who live as solitary hermits far from the madding crowd whose reliance is only to a small degree on their fellow human beings. They are not, however, so much self-reliant as reliant on the natural world that surrounds them—the plants, animals, rivers, waterholes, caves and canyons that form the network of interdependent entities that nowadays we call a habitat. Who knows what such hermits think, but my guess is that in order to survive at all, they must form habits based on their experiences of what works and what does not. In short, their thought patterns are for the most part habitual and therefore consistent from one day to the next. Hermits such as those cannot afford the luxury of thinking today what contradicts everything they thought yesterday. If they cannot do so, how much less can we who live within any kind of human society do so?

Emerson had many intriguing and even a few useful ideas. His notion of self-reliance was not one of them. Perhaps tomorrow I will think differently.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Wednesday, November 30, 2022 at 11:18


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In the summer of 1986, I gave a public talk at a Zen center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After the talk, a woman who had been in the audience handed me a sheet of paper printed on both sides and assured me I would find it edifying. I read the front page of the sheet and learned the document in my hand contained the teachings of an entity named Lazaris, who lived in one of the dimensions that somehow had remained undiscovered by science and who sent messages to the beings in the dimensions that human beings occupy through a channeler. The dissemination of the teachings of Lazaris have progressed since 1986 from the crude and unhygienic medium of the printed page to the aseptic medium of the Internet. Lazaris now has a website, on which we learn this:

Since 1974, Lazaris has channeled through Jach Pursel, his only channel, offering his friendship and love and generating a remarkable body of tools, techniques, processes, and pathways for our Spiritual Journey.

Learning more than some basic information about Jach Pursel and his assistants and getting more than a few short quotations from the teachings of Lazaris requires going to the shopping page and buying access to audio recordings, which range in price from $7.95 to $74.95 for the basic teachings, although some basic teachings are free. Learning what Lazaris has to say about being prosperous and successful can cost up to $250. Prosperity is rarely inexpensive.

Another website gives more information about what Lazaris is:

Lazaris is a nonphysical entity who first began channelling through Jach Pursel, his only channel, on October 3rd, 1974. He is a spark of Light, a Spark of Love, who has helped tens of thousands of people to expand personally, metaphysically and spiritually on their Spiritual Journey Home.

Another page on that same website offers a taste of the wisdom of Lazaris through a few quotations

Your love has a fierce majesty that cannot be matched; your love has a tenacious magnificence that cannot be contained or measured. You of the Human Race stand alone among the many Races within the dimensional universes in your capacity to love and in your ability to care – in the way you care for each other. Others love, but none like you do… Others care, but none like you do.

Back in 1986, a friend who was with me as I perused the double-sided sheet of printed paper commented “I wonder why it is that some people feel they need a nonphysical entity to tell them the sorts of things they could probably figure out for themselves by paying attention to their own experiences in life. If people feel a need for help from others, there are plenty of ordinary physical entities who have given us more than enough good advice.” I wondered the same thing.

Thirty years later I am still wondering, although to be honest I have not given the matter much thought. It is not that we human beings need better advice, I am inclined to believe, but that we would do well to follow the good advice we have been given. The only reason I am giving the matter of the appeal of Lazaris and various other allegedly disembodied entities some thought right now is that the United States seems about to embark on an era of authoritarianism. The man elected to be the 45th President of the United States has said that he does not need extensive intelligence briefings, because he can be told about a situation for twenty seconds, and he gets a gut feeling about what to do. It’s as if he “just knows” what to do and how to do it. His way of just knowing does not require the careful gathering of evidence, the consideration of all the different conclusions that any body of evidence could support, assessing the limitations of the available evidence, and the painstaking weighing of possibilities and probabilities. No phronesis is required. All that is needed is to listen for twenty seconds and then let intuition and instincts lead the way. If others question the decision, they simply need to be told “I am very smart. I know things that no one else knows.” There is no admission that there could be any legitimacy to questioning the conclusions that such a method yields. It is absolute. In that respect, the pronouncements of the 45th President are like the statements of an oracle, or a nonphysical entity that channels wisdom through just one person.

In his book The War on Science: Who’s Waging It, Why It Matters, What We Can Do About It, Shawn Lawrence Otto chronicles several of the human tragedies that have unfolded when authoritarians have suppressed both questioning and evidence that casts doubt on firm convictions. When, for example, unimpeachable leaders have insisted that particular agrarian policies would produce more crops, then have fired or imprisoned or even killed observers who dared to bring forth conclusive evidence that crop yields were in fact poor, masses of people have starved to death.

Authoritarianism manifests itself as an inability to accept that one has been mistaken. An antidote to authoritarianism is scientific method, which has at its very core not only the realization that one may very well be mistaken but the practice of trying to show that the currently accepted conclusions are mistaken, or at least incomplete and oversimplified and liable to be modified as new evidence comes to light. Failure to falsify a tentative claim reinforces the claim for now, but of course the claim can always be overturned in the future as better and more complete observations are made. It is falsifiability that distinguishes scientific claims from claims that are placed out of the reach of questioning or criticism. Authoritarianism and scientific method are fundamentally incompatible, which is why politicians with an authoritarian streak tend to be wary of science, scientists and evidence-based reasoning.

People, either individually or collectively, who have various kinds of vested interest have often used the greatest strength of those who practice science—their ability to replace a tentative conclusion with a more accurate one—against science. The tobacco industry, for example, sought to undermine public confidence in the conclusion that tobacco use entails numerous health risks by pointing out that what scientists say in one decade is shown to be false in later decades. If researchers are saying today that tobacco use entails health risks, suggested the practitioners of denial, ten years from now they may be saying something completely different. Exactly the same strategy was used by the pesticide industry to undermine public confidence in the finding that some pesticides and herbicides do damage to the environment and some health hazards to human beings. The same strategy has been used by the petroleum industry to manufacture doubt that the combustion of fossil fuels is a cause of changes in the climate that result in the melting of ice caps and glaciers, rising ocean levels, lethal acidification of waters, more turbulent storms and generally more unpredictable meteorological events. The transition team of the 45th president-elect tried to create doubt about CIA and FBI findings that Russia was involved in hacking into the email servers of both political parties by pointing out that those entities were mistaken in 2003 in saying that Saddam Hussein probably had, or would soon have, nuclear weapons. The doubt-creating strategy consists of making the fallacious argument that if someone was mistaken about something, then they cannot be believed about anything. That being the case, no one is to be believed but an infallible authority. But ordinary human beings are notoriously fallible, so the safest bet is either an extraordinary human being or a non-human entity.

If scientific method and authoritarianism are incompatible, then science is a way to counter authoritarianism, but authoritarianism is also a way to counter science. The authoritarian method consists in making claims, repeating them until people believe them, undermining the credibility of those who make contrary claims, deliberately silencing those who disagree with or question one’s claims, or by casting aspersions on the character of those who do not readily endorse one’s claims. A good many politicians practice all of those techniques. Probably every human being uses those techniques at one time or another.

This squib began with a reference to the teachings of Jach Pursel, which he claims are really the teachings of a nonphysical entity called Lazaris. Since I have no idea what these teachings are, because I am not inclined to pay money to find out, I am not at all in a position to suggest that there is anything pernicious in those teachings. In fact I suspect, but do not know, that the teachings are innocuous enough and unlikely to do anyone direct harm. They are probably not at all in the same league as the claim that nothing need be done by human beings to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions. There is, however, a potential unintended consequence of disseminating advice by making the untestable claim that the advice comes from a nonphysical entity rather than taking the more straightforward route of saying “Here are some ideas I have that I would like to share with you (for free).” Claiming that the advice is not just the outcome of the thinking of another ordinary human being, but is the communication of a nonphysical entity who speaks through only one human being, makes the advice seem extraordinary and therefore (in the minds of some) more credible, less prone to the errors made by minds encased in meat, fat and bones. Presenting the advice in this way is an attempt to make an end run around critical thinking. In an age about to embark on an autocratic and authoritarian presidency, critical thinking is not something to try to run around. It is something to embrace and to use as well as one is able. There is no area of life that I can think of that is not enhanced by critical thinking.

Many a political and economic commentator has expressed the view that the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States is likely to be the beginning of a dark and dangerous period on undemocratic authoritarianism in American history. For what it’s worth, Jach Pursel, blogging on behalf of Lazaris, is inclined to disagree. His cheerful advice is remarkably similar to that of the President so many people are dreading:

Be a champion of change, a champion of the new future—a future no one has yet imagined.

Some, I think, may have imagined our future. Names such as William Golding and Eric Arthur Blair (alias George Orwell) spring to mind.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017 at 14:25

Posted in Philosophical basis

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Moral murk

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A while back I went to see a performance of Shen Yun, the dance group associated with Falun Gong. The dancing, singing and music were all polished and impressive, but despite the skill of the performers, I left the theater feeling that some important dimension was missing from the spectacle. There was nothing in the evening that really engaged me intellectually, emotionally or aesthetically. In thinking about it afterwards, I realized that what had left me feeling unsatisfied was the moral certainty of many of the segments, the theme of which had been that perfectly good and innocent people were being persecuted by thoroughly malicious people for no reason other than that malevolent people cannot tolerate good people. There was nothing at all subtle about it. The good people wore white and pastel clothing, while the villains who were tormenting them wore black clothing with prominent red hammer-and-sickle designs on their backs. The good and innocent people were without guile or flaws, and the villains were without redeeming qualities. The final effect was as two-dimensional and unwittingly comical as any piece of emotionally manipulative propaganda. Whenever art is put to the service of political or religious dogma, it ceases to be artistic and becomes merely crafty.

There is no disputing that different people have different tastes, so I cannot speak for anyone but myself in matters of morality. What I can say about myself is that my soul craves moral murkiness. This may be nothing more than a particular application of a more general aspect of my character, namely, that I love questions far more than answers, and love above all those questions that cannot be answered. Since most moral questions fall into the category of unanswerable questions, it is no surprise that I am drawn to thinking about morality and am especially attracted to situations of moral complexity, ambiguity and indeterminacy.

My own default position, which I admit I am unable to defend, is that there is no such thing as a moral fact. People have personal preferences in how they would like others to behave, but these preferences are essentially groundless and therefore indefensible. There is nothing whatsoever that I like about war. I find it distasteful, and my preference would be for disputes to be settled without recourse to violence, coercion, destruction of lives and property and to threats of violence and destruction. My preference would be to live in a world in which there were no weapons of any kind and in which no human being imposed his or her will on any other living being. As strongly as I prefer that, however, I have never been able to defend the claim that a peaceful world is more moral than a world of bellicosity. That peace is better than war is, in other words, a personal preference that I happen to have. It is not a moral fact. There is probably a name for the view that there is no such thing as a moral fact—perhaps it is what some people mean by the term “moral nihilism”. What the view is called does not interest me very much. What interests me more is that it is a view I would prefer not to have, but have been driven to having for lack of sufficient reason to hold the view that there are, or may be, moral facts.

Most situations that create a craving for moral certainty—that is, for clear answers to the question of what ought and what ought not to be done—create that craving precisely because no clear answers are evident. Most situations that make one even think in moral terms are situations characterized by ambiguity and indeterminacy. These two features are closely related, but let me try to explain how I would distinguish them.

  • Moral indeterminacy. Moral theories that assess the rightness of actions on the basis of the goodness of the consequences of those actions lend themselves to indeterminacy; that is, the consequences of an action cannot be determined for a couple of reasons. First, given the complexity of events, it is seldom possible to know for certain whether any given circumstance that occurs after an action is the effect or direct consequences of that action. This is so because no circumstance has only one cause. This is especially the case when the putative effect in question is an abstract notion such as happiness, flourishing or well-being. Well-being is such a nebulous concept that it is almost impossible to define it with any kind of precision, and even if it could be said definitively whether a particular state of being qualified as being well, that state would have so many variables that it would not be possible to identify any given action or personality trait as its cause. There is another reason that the consequences of a given action or personality trait cannot be determined, which is that the consequences of anything at a given time continue indefinitely into the future. In the year 2014, for example, the consequences of the signing of the Declaration of Independence are still unfolding, and they will continue to unfold long after the nation that got its beginning after that action has ceased to exist. It is possible that the consequences of the Declaration of Independence in 1825 were better than the consequences in 1848 and slightly worse than the consequences in 1935. So at what point does one take a sounding of the long chain of consequences of an action to determine whether the consequences were better or worse? (There is an often-told Zen story that illustrates this point.)
  • Moral ambiguity. Moral theories that focus not on actions but on personality traits tend to classify personality traits as either virtues or vices. A person with good character is one whose virtues outnumber or outweigh that person’s vices. It is usually said that virtue conduces to the person’s happiness or well-being, while vices conduce to a deficiency of flourishing. As was pointed out above, the abstractness of those notions militates against our being able to determine whether a person’s being is well or ill. Even if this could be determined in some way, it would turn out that any given personality trait has a mixture of results, some of them instances of well-being and others of doing poorly. If one examines one’s own patience, for example, one can probably think of situations in which patience turned out to be conducive to well-being and of other situations in which patience was an obstacle to well-being. So is patience a virtue or a vice? For most of us, the answer is Yes. It is both. Its valence is ambiguous. The same would most likely turn out to be true of such traits as attentiveness to detail, curiosity, optimism and so forth. Even the qualities of wisdom and compassion, which tend to have a good reputation among philosophers as virtues, and faith, hope and love, which tend to be favored by Christian theologians, cannot claim to be unambiguous. It is a commonplace to say that everyone, with the possible exception of perfect saints, has a mentality that is a mixture of virtue and vice and that therefore there are no perfectly innocent victims, perfectly virtuous heroes or absolutely vicious villains. That is no doubt the case, but the problem is even deeper than that. At its most fundamental level, the problem is that there are no personality characteristics that are pure virtues or pure vices. There are personality traits; nothing more than that need be said.

Moral nihilism in a Buddhist context

Throughout the history of Buddhism, the claim has been made that the Buddha’s teaching on dependent origination steers a middle course (madhyamā pratipad) between the two extremes of claiming that there is an eternal self that survives the death of the present physical body and claiming that there is a self that endures from conception to death but is cut off or annihilated when the physical body dies. These two extreme views are therefore often called eternalism and annihilationism in English, approximate translations of the Sanskrit śāśvatavāda and ucchedavāda. Each of these two extremes is said to be a poor foundation for an ethical life. The view that there is a self in this life that fails to survive the death of the body is said to lead to a kind of moral nihilism. The usual reason given for this association is that if one does not continue existing beyond the death of the body in this life, then one is not accountable in the future for actions done in this life. One might, for example, commit a heinous act at the very end of this life and not live to experience the painful consequences that are supposed to follow heinous acts. One might, for example, strap a bomb to one’s body and detonate it in a crowded place, thereby killing both oneself and scores of other people, and if that is the end of one’s conscious existence, then one would not go to hell or be reborn as a rabbit in a realm of hungry coyotes. Buddhists, not alone among purveyors of religious ethics, worried about the injustice of crimes going unpunished. They also worried about the injustice of good deeds going unrewarded. Someone might, for example, run into a burning building to save the life of an invalid, succeed in saving the helpless invalid’s life and then die of smoke inhalation. If that heroic act is the very final episode in the hero’s existence, then there is no chance of reaping the rewards of the heroism. That a hero and a suicidal sociopath might have exactly the same fate—oblivion—hardly seems fair. So cosmic justice, the argument goes, demands that we survive into another existence long enough to experience the rewards of virtuous behavior and the miseries engendered by vicious conduct. Unless there is a difference in the consequences of vice and virtue, then vice and virtue turn out to be indistinguishable, and to say that there is nothing that distinguishes vice from virtue (or bad deeds and good deeds) is to espouse moral nihilism.

Let me begin by accepting, just for the sake of argument, that the Buddhist claim that denying an afterlife would lead to moral nihilism is correct. What I would now like to argue is that moral nihilism is in no way incompatible with having an effective Buddhist practice. This amounts to arguing that two and a half millennia of Buddhist teachers, and even the Buddha himself, were mistaken in saying that denial of an afterlife is a false or unproductive view (mithyādṛṣṭi) and therefore an obstacle to liberation from the root causes of discontent. Before presenting a case for my contention that the Buddhist tradition is mistaken in this matter, let me try to understand what I think the worry is. The Buddhists who adhere to their traditional teachings are worried, I think, that if someone is a moral nihilist, then that person will automatically behave in ways that are harmful to self and others. If one is convinced that trying to make a rational or pragmatic distinction between right and wrong and between vice and virtue is a futile pursuit, then one is sure to break all the Buddhist precepts. That is, one is bound to go around killing, stealing, being a sexual pervert, lying, gossiping and harboring greedy and hateful ambitions. Why? Because, I think the Buddhist is likely to respond, there is nothing to prevent one from acting in all those ways that are supposedly destructive to self and others. So if I am to show that the Buddhist tradition’s collective fear of moral nihilism is ungrounded, I must show that a it does not follow that a moral nihilist would necessarily violate the Buddhist precepts. One way of doing that is to explain why it is that I, being a moral nihilist, have strived (and for the most part succeeded) to follow the Buddhist precepts.

First, it may be helpful to say something about the nature of what are usually called the precepts in Buddhism. In the Sanskrit language these so-called precepts are called śīla, a word that simply means a habit or a propensity to act in a particular way. Liquid water has the habit of flowing downhill, while solidified water has the habit of staying stationary and gaseous water has the habit of rising. Buddhas have the habit of being mindful of how their thoughts and words and physical actions affect other living beings. There is not necessarily anything moral about śīla; it is simply a propensity to be predictable in one’s actions. The verbal formula for the five, or eight or ten śīlas of Buddhism can best be translated as “I undertake the training principle of abstaining from….” It is noteworthy that the formula does not say that one has a duty to abstain from a given action, or that doing a given action is offensive in the eyes of God, or that performing the action in question will lead to rebirth in hell. There is nothing suggesting that abstaining from the actions is obligatory. On the contrary, the abstention is purely voluntary. The abstention is simply something that one undertakes. One undertakes it as a training principle. In other words, if one wishes to be part of the community of people undergoing Buddhist training, then one voluntarily undertakes to abstain from taking life, taking property, reckless sexuality, lying and so forth. In much the same way that if one wishes to drive a car in England, one agrees to drive on the left side of the road, but if one wishes to drive a car in Canada, one drives on the right side of the road, if one wishes to consider oneself a disciple of the Buddha, one agrees not to take life or property and not to act in various other ways.

Surely, I can imagine someone saying, there must be something more involved in practicing abstention from certain acts than simply wanting to be a member of the Buddhist club and knowing that some kinds of behavior would be frowned upon by the doormen. And I would readily admit that successfully abstaining from those actions probably requires some motivation other than the fear of disapproval. In my own case, fear that I might be considered unworthy to be a member of the Buddhist club plays no role at all. My own adherence to the Buddhist precepts preceded my knowing anything about the teachings of Buddhism. What motivated me was, as was mentioned above, simply a strong sense of distaste for taking life and for the various other things that Buddhists undertake to abstain from. So while my own practice of the precepts has been far from perfect—rest assured that I am no candidate for sainthood—it has not taken much more effort to practice the recommended abstentions than it has taken to abstain from eating beets. I don’t like beets. I find them distasteful. I also don’t like killing, taking what is not given, being sexually careless and lying. I also don’t enjoy being around loud and boisterous people, so I also try to minimize my contact with them. All these preferences are purely a matter of taste, and de gustibus non est disputandum. There is no arguing about tastes.

Now, if my principal motivation in abstaining from the kinds of actions that made the Buddha frown is my own idiosyncratic sense of taste, does that not limit me as a Buddhist practitioner? I would say not. It does not limit me as a practitioner (unless my tastes unaccountably and unexpectedly change, which could happen if something very dramatic happened to me). At most, it may limit me as a Buddhist preacher, because I cannot preach what I practice. I am incapable of coming up with rational arguments for why I or anyone else ought to follow the Buddhist precepts. If someone does not already think it is a good idea not to take life, I cannot persuade him. If someone does not already think it is not a good idea to take someone else’s property, I cannot dissuade her from theft. I am completely unfurnished with rational arguments to support why one kind of behavior is better than another. But in this, I am not so unique. In fact, I would claim that in this respect I am exactly the same as Buddhist preachers, for they are also incapable of coming up with rational arguments for following the precepts. Telling someone that if they take a life then they will be reborn in hell is not a rational argument. Telling someone that the Buddha did not like theft is not a rational argument for abstaining from taking property. My claim is that all putative arguments for morality turn out to be, on closer examination, nothing more than statements of personal taste.

It is possible that there are disadvantages of being a moral-nihilistic Buddhist, but so far the only one I am aware of is that my distaste for moral absolutes and black-and-white depictions of good guys versus bad guys may have diminished my enjoyment of the Shen Yun troop.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Monday, April 7, 2014 at 11:30

On being oneself

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“One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. That’s all. They were coming in the goddam window.”—J.D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye

A recent PBS American Masters documentary on the life and influence of J.D. Salinger reported that in the 1980s there were three assassinations or assassination attempts in which the assassins cited Catcher in the Rye during the trials by way of explaining why they had decided to take, or try to take, someone’s life. Mark David Chapman, the young man who shot and killed former Beatle John Lennon, reportedly said that he thought John Lennon was a phony. Chapman read some of the many quotes from Catcher in the Rye showing contempt for phonies. John Hinkley, Jr, the young man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan reportedly had a copy of Catcher in the Rye in his hotel room and also cited passages from it at his trial. A third shooting in the late 1980s of a Hollywood actress also reportedly involved a shooter enamored of and perhaps motivated by the book.

Like many young people in the early 1960s, I was fascinated by J.D. Salinger’s writings and read almost everything he published before he stopped submitting his work for public scrutiny. Like most young people of all times, I went through a judgmental phase in my late adolescence and early adulthood, during which I was hypersensitive to people I regarded as phony. One time I made the fortunate mistake of denouncing some acquaintance as a phony in the presence of my mother. In her college years my mother had been active in campus theater productions, and throughout my elementary and high school education she had taken a keen interest in dramatic productions I was involved with at school. When she heard me denounce someone as a phony, she drew upon our shared interest in theater and reminded me that most people put a great deal of effort into creating a character that they wish to present to the world. Rather than denouncing them, she suggested, I might try admiring the results of the efforts to present a persona. Perhaps the character they are pretending to be is not really who they are, but it really is who they are sincerely trying to be, or at least sincerely trying to convince others that they are. A good performance by anyone is nothing to decry, and even a mediocre performance can be entertaining in its own way. A façade is no less who a person is than what is behind the façade. So sit back, my mother suggested, and enjoy the show.

My mother’s advice was one of those parental interventions that had the effect of immediately changing my attitude, and it turns out that the change in attitude has lasted for more than fifty years. What she said had the effect of making me look more deeply into the distinction between authenticity and phoniness. Like a good many distinctions, this one does not stand up very well under close scrutiny. Although human beings are often inclined to see some people as more authentic than others, it is not at all clear what the criteria are by which one can make an informed judgment as to which actions are sincere and which are not, or whose character is genuine and whose is not. It is not even clear what the point is in deciding who is authentic and who is not.

In Jungian psychology, the persona (or ego) is considered to be an archetype of the unconscious. To make that claim is to suggest that few of us are fully aware of all the times we are striving to present ourselves as being a particular kind of person; we do so unconsciously. The Jungian theory also suggests that the persona one is striving to be is only part of the totality of who one actually is. The persona is a selected subset of our entire psychological performance. It is but one character in a complex drama with a good many dramatic personae. When one acts in ways that the persona does not fully approve, the unapproved action is deemed “out of character” and the persona is quick to think “That was not really me.” Others may see what we do as being fully in character and quite predictable, while the persona remains quite sure that the disapproved action was a puzzling aberration and a deviation from one’s true self.

My mother loved to quote the line from Robert Burns’s poem “To a Louse”:

“O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us.”

Over the years I have often wondered how much of a gift it would really be to see myself as others see me. Perhaps I am not alone in having been surprised a number of times by how others have characterized me, and when other people’s characterizations take me by surprise, my tendency is regard the characterizations as inaccurate. Surely, I like to think, I am not as mean-spirited and misanthropic as some people seem to think, nor as kind-hearted and accepting as some others seem to think. The truth (if there is such a thing) is probably that I am sometimes mean-spirited and misanthropic and at other times a bit more kind and accepting, sometimes demanding and critical and sometimes permissive and lenient. Given enough time and varying circumstances, I am quite capable of being just about everywhere on the map at one time or another.

Are there any of the regions of that map that deserve to be called who I really am? Are there any areas on the map that when entered mark me as a phony? To both questions I am inclined to say I think not. But I am so often mistaken about so many things, that I could well be wrong about this as well.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Sunday, January 26, 2014 at 13:37

Posted in Philosophical basis

Tagged with

Convinced atheist

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The last time I saw my father, just a few days before he died on 30 July 2012, he invited me to look at his bookshelf and take whatever books I wanted. When I was growing up, his library was much larger and contained a good variety of books on geology, ornithology, the environment, American history, anthropology cultural and physical geography and language, along with dozens of dictionaries, almanacs and other reference works. Most of those were given away in the last years of his life. Among the books that remained, the category with the most volumes remaining was books on atheism. Also by his favorite chair was a stack of books on atheism—and some books on birds. He belonged to an atheist book club with whom he met religiously. It was obvious that his atheism was important to him. It struck me as odd that he felt it increasingly important to take a stand on this matter, and I did not quite understand why he was not content to remain an agnostic or to be largely indifferent to religious matters. I still do not fully understand. This blog posting represents a first attempt to explore the issue and to try to understand why my father was an increasingly outspoken atheist. I am not confident I know his reasons, but I am confident I knew him well enough to make a reasonable guess as to what his reasons might have been.

Given that the concept of God is so multifaceted and that the overall idea is therefore vague and nebulous, if one simply claims not to believe in God, one has no clear idea what exactly the person does not believe in. What I shall try to make more clear to myself is what exactly my father rejected, and what he accepted as preferable to what he rejected. As far as I can tell, he rejected the notion of God as a creator, as a higher power, as a source of morality and as a means of salvation.

  • Creator. My father was a geologist. From as far back as my memory goes, I heard him talking about geological eras millions of years long that took place over the course of the 4.54 billion year history of the planet earth. The history of the planets was part of the thirteen-billion-year history of the galaxy of which our sun is a part, and so on. Vast time scales and unimaginably large expanses of space were part of the daily conversation in my childhood, as was the reminder than if the history of the earth up to now were twenty-four hours long, then the time that human beings emerged on the planet was just a few minutes before midnight. In this view of the place of the human being in the universe, there was no place for a notion of a creator who had created man in his own image and for whom the human being is the creature of central importance. There was no place for the idea of a single power so great that it knows every detail of creation and controls events.
  • Higher power. To say that there is probably not a single power so great that it controls all events in the universe is not to say there is no power greater than human beings. To say there is no intelligence that knows all events in the universe is not to say there is no intelligence greater than one’s own. All of human learning is a collaborative effort that is carried on for countless generations, and the totality of human experience was my father’s higher power. Indeed, the entirety of intelligent life was a higher power from which my atheistic father was constantly willing to learn. What he rejected was the notion that any understanding is infallible and immune from being superseded by a clearer and more comprehensive understanding.
  • Source of morality. There was no single claim about God that more rankled my father than the claim that people need to believe in God in order to be moral, altruistic, caring, and decent to one another. He was convinced that people learn the value of honesty by witnessing the consequences of deceit, and they learn the importance of kindness by witnessing the consequences of cruelty. One learns moral integrity by keeping one’s eyes open in this life, not by keeping an eye on the afterlife. The punishment for careless and shoddy behavior is immediate, he believed, and the rewards for attentiveness and generosity are amply doled out in this life. There is no need to wait until death to discover whether one’s life was well lived and whether one fought the good fight.
  • Means of salvation. Although descended from a long line of Christian ministers, my father rejected most of the core dogmas of mainline Christianity. He did not believe in original sin and therefore had no need for the doctrine that the crucifixion of Jesus Christ was an atonement for original sin. He believed that consciousness is a property that emerges from the enormous complexity of billions of neurons passing electromagnetic and chemical signals to one another and that when the living organism that is host to a central nervous system dies, so does the intelligence that emerged from that particular collection of neurons. The idea of life outside physical life made no sense at all to him, and so he had no use for the Christian dogma that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross brought eternal life to human beings or any other life form. One needs to believe in salvation only when one sees life as a problem. My father never saw life as a problem and therefore had no hankering for salvation.

As a scientist and a humanist, my father simply had no need for a belief in an omniscient, benevolent and omnipotent creator and savior. But having no need for something would most naturally lead simply to being indifferent to it and taking no interest in it. My father was not indifferent to religion. He was hostile toward it. He was not disinterested in it. He was scornful of it. Where did that come from?

Probably the greatest single factor in my father’s moving from agnosticism to atheism was his alarm at the increasing influence of organized religion in American politics. He was born in 1923 and therefore lived for thirty-one years before “under God” was inserted into the pledge of allegiance, and thirty-four years before “in God we trust” was printed on paper money. (That slogan began appearing on some coins, of course, shortly after the Civil War, even though there were many coins that escaped having that pious motto inscribed on them until just before the Second World War.) My father was still a child when religious fanaticism led to the Prohibition and its many unfortunate consequences. He lived to see white ministers in the American southeast proclaiming that racial segregation was part of God’s plan. He saw appeals to dubious interpretations of scripture trump reason in almost every domain of American life, from the teaching of science in American classrooms to the way that pointless and unnecessary wars were justified in the name of protecting America from godless or anti-Christian enemies.

In the final analysis, I think my father’s atheism was made staunch not so much by reflection on theology as by the outrageous conduct of human beings who claimed to be righteous believers in the one true God. I sometimes tried, without much success, to convince him that not all believers are narrow-minded fanatics bent on imposing their wills on others. It often troubled me that the man who had taught me from earliest childhood to question all my prejudices was himself prejudiced against almost all organized religion. Having said that, I must admit that there are few of the beliefs he instilled in me as a child that I have rejected—even though I have certainly questioned them. What appalled him about much of organized religion also appalls me, and what he cherished in the natural world I also cherish. Who knows but that when I am nearing the end of my days, I will have given away all my books except for a few well-chosen volumes on atheism—and some books on birds.

Written by Richard P. Hayes (Dayāmati Dharmacārin)

Saturday, August 11, 2012 at 09:18