Disenchanted with Disenchantment: Can We Integrate Science and Ethics?

Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Disenchanted with Disenchantment: Can We Integrate Science and Ethics?

SCIENCE AND THE QUEST FOR MEANING
by Alfred Tauber, Baylor University Press, 2009

Review by Raymond Barglow

Science is sometimes seen as a cold, heartless enterprise that "disenchants" the world and destroys its mystery and wonder. In his most recent book, Alfred Tauber questions this view of science and seeks to understand the implications of Darwinian evolution for the humanities and religion. His inquiry covers the gamut of relationships that link science, spirituality, and ethics, deftly handling some complex and challenging issues.

Tauber recognizes that the story of the origin and development of the world that we find in Genesis and other creation narratives is at loggerheads with the history that biological science tells. Indeed, the "blind" materialism of the evolutionary account, invoking neither intention nor design, appears to be at odds with any worldview that regards "spirit" -- however it is understood -- as fundamental.

One way to arbitrate this apparent conflict between science and spirituality is to separate the contestants and declare each form of inquiry sovereign in its own domain. Tauber, however, refuses to settle glibly for such a two-state solution. Science, says Tauber, "cannot be given the status of some autonomous social activity. Instead science has become constitutive to our very selves, interpreting through its own refractions issues heretofore left to ethics, religion, and philosophy."

Early in his book, Tauber casts aside the notion that science aims merely to advance control and exploitation. Rather, says Tauber, "science began with the desire to master nature coupled to probing the wonder of nature's mysteries for human understanding." He is concerned with science not only as the driver of technological progress, but also as a worldview. Science has a "pervasive impact on existential and metaphysical formulations of the character of human nature, the place of humans in nature, and the nature of being." Hence science is right up there with spiritual inquiry as a source of profound insight: science has something to tell us in response to the perennial question "What does it all mean?"

Scientific findings also bear, says Tauber, upon specific ethical dilemmas that we face. A number of today's raging controversies turn upon scientific issues. Consider for example the debate about global warming (Does it exist? What future for humanity does it portend? What can be done about it?) or the debates about abortion rights or stem cell research, where science is considered relevant to the question of when and how an embryo develops into a "person" with rights. In many such instances scientific perspectives and ethical issues are interwoven.

Tauber's integrative approach does not, however, drop all limits upon the range of scientific authority. He re-establishes a boundary when he seeks to insulate spiritual views from scientific critique. Science, he says, "does not, cannot consider religious claims. Since science makes no attempt to address or listen to God, the question of whether the divine exists or not is simply off the scientific agenda."

I find Tauber's reasoning here questionable. He agrees that creationism in any form, including "intelligent design," is incompatible with evolutionary science. But if design is not manifest in nature, then what other reason can be given for supposing divine purpose? The case against intelligent design diminishes the evidence for the existence of a Designer.

The challenge is this: it has become increasingly evident over the past century and a half, since Darwin formulated his evolution theory, that the "clockwork," so to speak, of the universe has no need of a "clock-maker" to explain its development or current motions. Divinity, then, like a disconnected wheel, appears to have no discernable role to play, beyond "presence," as Tauber calls it. In terms similar to those of Tauber, Arthur Green, in his essay "Sacred Evolution" (Tikkun, March/April 2010) speaks of "an inward, mysterious sense of awesome presence." The word "presence" is well chosen in this context -- better than "existence," which carries the implication of being objective and publicly observable. I don't believe there's any question about whether the experience of "presence," in Tauber's or Green's sense, is real; it indisputably is. But what we are to make of that experience? How does such experience -- or any deep encounter with wonder and mystery -- intersect with the world that evidence-based empirical inquiry reveals to us?

It may be that when these authors speak of "presence," they mean to strip from the word any connotation of divine design or agency. Perhaps they agree with Spinoza, who writes in the first part of his Ethics that divine intention, purpose, and design are "mere human fictions," representing nothing more than imaginary projection onto G-d of our provincial, human ways of being in the world. But such a radical removal of intentionality from the world alters conventional views of the divine quite dramatically. The German poet Novalis called Spinoza "God intoxicated," but given Spinoza's belief that G-d is absolutely unknowable, it's no accident that he has often been deemed an atheist.

For Tauber, however, science (or, for that matter, any truth-seeking inquiry) is hardly in any position to criticize a spiritual perspective, since science itself has feet of clay: science rests, in his view, upon ultimate values as much as spiritual or ethical inquiry does. Therefore science occupies no privileged position regarding these other ways of knowing, and can provide no superior truth standard for them.

Tauber shifts his focus here from spirituality to ethics, and it is the relationships of science to ethics that preoccupy him from this point forward. Science's way of knowing, he submits, "is value-laden ... we have come to understand that facts are facts because of the values that confer a factual status." Near the end of the book, he reiterates that "science as practiced is not a free-standing enterprise, but is firmly based in the social and subject to the needs and values of its supporting culture."

Once again, Tauber's reasoning is problematic. Ethical values are relevant to the motivations and aims that drive scientific inquiry, but don't tell us whether a scientific hypothesis is credible or not. That is to say, ethical values (supporting our judgments of what is right and wrong) are fundamentally different from epistemic values (involved in scientific justification).

Epistemic values such as simplicity, consistency, predictive power, and agreement with observational data can themselves be justified: a hypothesis that is simple, yields confirmed predictions, agrees with observations, etc. is likely to represent reality more accurately than one that does not.

Ethical values cannot be authorized in this way; they rest upon human mutuality and consent in a manner that I'll elaborate below.

Of course scientists can disagree about the application of epistemic criteria to confirm or disprove a hypothesis or theory, but such disagreement proves to be more easily resolvable, both in practice and in principle, than disagreement about fundamental ethical norms. Even the famous historian Thomas Kuhn, whose work is critical of the idea of "the forward march of science," backed away from scientific relativism. In physics, for example, there is universal agreement that Einsteinian mechanics marks an advance over Newtonian mechanics: the former theory explains everything that the latter one does, explains some things that are inexplicable on a Newtonian account, and is in closer accord with observational data that were unavailable to Newton but have become scientifically ordinary today. Such advance over time in explanatory power is a commonly realized aim of the natural sciences.

I've suggested above that scientific judgment is more objective and securely established than Tauber allows. Ethical judgment, on the other hand, is more subjective than Tauber makes it out to be. Ethical judgment invokes human purpose and will in a unique way that has no scientific counterpart. In this sense, ethics "transcends" science. When scientists get together to assess the evidence for and against a hypothesis in physics or microbiology, their activity is different in form as well as content from what people are doing when they get together to evaluate, for example, a social policy. Consider these two statements, the first scientific and the second ethical:

"All human beings have a susceptibility to bacterial infection."

"All human beings ought to have adequate health care."

The first statement reports a factual state of affairs: certain one-celled microorganisms are apt to attack a human body; its vulnerability is something that has been discovered, not invented. It's true that the way that we respond to this vulnerability is variable and shaped by human priorities and sympathies. But the harm done to human bodies by certain bacteria is a fact of nature.

An ethical proposition, on the other hand, involves more than empirical discovery; it is irreducibly existential: we choose to treat one another well, or we choose -- with varying degrees of self-awareness -- to act otherwise.

This insight about the volitional character of ethical judgment informs a Jewish European tradition that runs from Spinoza through the German neo-Kantian school (e.g. Hermann Cohen) at the turn of the past century, and more recently Hannah Arendt.

Ethical will formation, Arendt believes, cannot rest solely upon any factual appraisal of ourselves or the world around us. Her view of ethical ideals such as social justice, freedom, and democracy is that they neither need nor admit of empirical proof. A statement such as "Adequate health care is a human right" or "We are stewards of planet earth" or "Undocumented workers should be treated with respect and decency" is not true in the same way that a factual statement is true. Rather, an ethical judgment expresses an invitation of a kind; it conveys resolve and hope -- even faith, one might say.

Hannah Arendt cites Immanuel Kant's suggestion that value judgments amount to a courtship of a kind: we "woo" the consent of others. "Life is to be cherished," for example, means something like "Let us cherish life!" This value "follows" not from arguments or evidence, scientific or otherwise, but from dialogue, soul-searching, and commitment.

On this account, ethics has persuasive power only insofar as people regard themselves, in Arendt's words, as "human beings, living and dying in this world, on this earth that is a globe, which they inhabit in common, share in common, in the succession of generations."

This does not mean that facts have no bearing on our ethical judgments. We cannot evaluate global warming, for instance, without understanding its causes and consequences. Tauber presents a convincing case that social policy decisions will be enlightened only if the decision-makers are well informed. He examines "ecological ethics" as a case study, submitting that "there is a seamless joint between the findings [of environmental degradation] of ecologists as scientists and the values drawn from their studies."

But because ethical values, unlike the epistemic ones that govern science, rest finally upon chosen covenants and solidarity, ethical judgment cannot be as seamlessly integrated with scientific inquiry as Tauber suggests. Hence in seeking to live in an ecologically sustainable and humane way, we will travel in the company not only of Isaac Newton but also of his seventeenth-century contemporary Blaise Pascal: "The heart has reasons that reason cannot know." Ethical judgment needs to understand the world as it is, but relies fundamentally upon commitment to the world as it ought to be.

Raymond Barglow's interests range from the philosophy of biology to the history and meaning of German social democracy. He lives in Berkeley, California.


Source Citation: Barglow, Raymond. Disenchanted with Disenchantment: Can We Integrate Science and Ethics?  Tikkun 25(6): Online Exclusives

Posted in 2010, Articles, Reviews, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The New Theory Versus the Old Story

Image WWW.KRIEBEL.TK.
Image WWW.KRIEBEL.TK.


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

The New Theory Versus the Old Story


by David Loye


Are humans an organism primarily ruled by the inescapable biological dictate of "survival of the fittest" and "selfish genes"? Or do we have the inbuilt drive and ability to choose to live by an ethos of mutual aid, caring for others, ultimately love?

A number of recent articles in Tikkun have set in motion a vital new probe of this question, which I believe is the single most important query facing our species at this pivotal juncture in human evolution: Peter Gabel's call for sacred biologists, Art Green's call for sacred evolution (Tikkun March/April 2010), and David Belden's earlier review of Joan Roughgarden's book The Genial Gene (September/October 2009). I am happy to join the conversation and share my perspective as an evolutionary systems scientist.

The idea of an inbuilt drive to care and love is really nothing new, of course. It's been the underlying message of Jesus, Gautama, and countless other practical visionaries over the ages. It's only new to us in trying to scientifically grope our way out of what became the prison of the old scientific mindset into the liberation of a new world allied as friend rather than enemy to spirituality.

The other thing that sadly comes across for me is how we could have been a century ahead, rather than a century behind, in the evolution of both our psyches and our social policies had we been able to understand, teach, and celebrate all that Darwin really believed and wrote. It's not as if his ideas were lost in some obscure place like the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rather, there they have been staring us in the face for over one hundred years, laid out clearly, and at length, in The Descent of Man, in his early notebooks and letters, and in his own highly moral, cooperative, and loving family life.

Go with an open mind to the book in which Darwin specifically tells us he will deal with human evolution, The Descent of Man, and here is what you will find: in the 828 pages of this book -- into each of which on the average 980 words are crammed -- you will find that Darwin wrote only twice of "survival of the fittest," but ninety-five times of love.

You will find that of selfishness -- which he called "a base principle" -- he wrote only twelve times, but ninety-two times of moral sensitivity.  

Yet after more than one hundred years, if you ask someone what they think or know about evolution, odds are you'll get something about "survival of the fittest," "selfish genes," or what a CBS/New York Times poll in 2004 confirmed: that of American respondents, 55 percent believed "God created us in our present form."

This is after a century of billions spent on science and education in the wealthiest and once supposedly most advanced country in the world.

What Did Darwin Really Believe?

What I found still astounds me. Behind the arresting word counts for Descent is the baffling reality of "two Darwins" that have divided Darwinians into three irreconcilable camps. On one hand is the "hard" Darwin of racist, sexist, and imperialist quotations. This for one camp is the ugly image for the man that comfortably fits the celebration of selfishness and "survival of the fittest" at the core of the traditionally "hard" Darwinian theory. It is also the Darwin who has provided the Creationists with a bogeyman, an excuse to bog down the mass mind in abysmal ignorance for over a century.

On the other hand, staunchly defended by the well-entrenched official camp -- e.g., Dawkins, Dennett, Wilson, Pinker, and the Super Neo-Darwinians of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology -- is the mystifying image of a really nice guy who somehow also happens to be the bloody patron saint for the traditionally "hard" Darwinian theory.

On still another hand, however, is what began as hardly a camp at all -- just growing numbers of puzzled people able to read past the barrier of what we've been told to what in fact Darwin did both think and write of extensively.

It may seem inconceivable, beyond belief. But what I found is the Darwin whose other great contribution was in providing the scientific grounding for the "love thy neighbor" ethos of Jesus. Indeed, he does this, as a whole, for progressive religion and progressive philosophy.

In other words, in the "lost Darwin" one finds a carefully reasoned, empirically grounded scientific expression of the supremacy of love and moral sensitivity, with even a good word for what we know today as progressive religion!

Yes, in this man reviled as the enemy of religion, you will find that, although he firmly decided it was not for him, he approved of the practical, evolutionary effect of "the ennobling belief in God" that others held.

Even bolder, you may glimpse what I have come to see as the central driver for the Tikkun mission. In the "lost Darwin" I found ground for the vision of the task that progressive science, religion, philosophy, politics, and economics hold in common: fighting the regression in all its fields and forms that now places our species and our planet at risk.

Uncovering a Buried Treasure: Darwin's Picture of Who We Really Are

For over a decade I have written a stream of articles, edited two books with essays by others, written four more books myself, formed The Darwin Project with a Council of fifty leading American, European, and Asian scientists and educators, built three websites, and formed a publishing company (Benjamin Franklin Press) to report what can only be glimpsed here, most all of it still in grim fact generally ignored.

Why such massive resistance? At age eighty-five, in one last big whack at it, I've set out to try to break the prevailing stranglehold of the disastrous old "survival of the fittest" and "selfish genes" mindset on us with three more books. In the forthcoming trilogy, Darwin and the Battle for Human Survival, I place the new Darwin within the step-by-step context of major works in the development of evolution theory, and the battle of progressive versus regressive politics, economics, education, science, and religion throughout the twentieth century.

What emerges not just out of the lost Darwin, but out of hundreds of corroborating studies (e.g., Maslow, the brain research of Paul MacLean and Karl Pribram, the biology of Lynn Margulis, the moral psychology of Freud, Piaget, Fromm, Kohlberg, and Gilligan), and skirmishes between pro and con (the volley and thundering of the so-called Darwin Wars) is this picture of who we really are:

  • Unlike what we've been brainwashed over many centuries to believe, we are basically good -- that is, far more often than we are aware of, we are driven by moral sensitivity.
  • Though selfish, we are also driven by love to transcend selfishness.
  • Though of necessity fiercely motivated to survive and prevail, we are also driven by the transcendent need to respect and care for the needs of others.
  • Though in part or even throughout much of our lives we may be the captives, victims, and even slaves of forces larger than ourselves, above all we are driven by a brain and a mind with the hunger and capability for a choice of destiny in a world in which choice of destiny is an option.

I have written this trilogy to bring to life not only the lost Darwin but by now countless others who wrote and write not just in speculation but in reasonably well-grounded conviction of where we are going.

They write not of how we are driven blindly, witlessly, through a life with no predictability -- which has convinced far too many of us that we are but sheep in need of the wolf as leader -- but of how we are driven by a brain that demands of life a sense of meaning and purpose, and by the vision of a better future.

In the concluding pages of The Descent of Man, Darwin wrote the following for all with open minds and eyes to see:

Important as the struggle for existence has been and even still is, yet as far as the highest part of our nature is concerned there are other agencies more important. For the moral qualities are advanced either directly or indirectly much more through the effects of habit, by our reasoning powers, by instruction, by religion, etc., than through natural selection.... But the more important elements for us are love, and the distinct emotion of sympathy.... The birth both of the species and of the individual are equally parts of that grand sequence of events that our minds refuse to accept as the result of blind chance. The understanding revolts at such a conclusion.

If we date the scientific case for these conclusions from the year in which Darwin first sketched the higher order completion of his theory in his early notebooks, around 1837, I feel that here we have 173 years of scientific support for Peter Gabel's call for a "sacred biology," Art Green's call for "sacred evolution," and Joan Roughgarden's case for the "genial gene" -- which notably provides the biological grounding for cultural evolution theorist Riane Eisler's partnership-versus-domination-system cultural transformation theory.

Time to Live by a New Story

How do we storm the barricades of mind to advance this essential revolution? What must we do to build the bridge to a better world?

We live by story.

Most of us would agree with this statement, as intuitively it seems to make sense without further elaboration. But then add this: we live by story -- and the story we are living by is driving our species toward extinction.

I've sorted through it all, over all of these years, looking for the answer, and I am convinced that what falls in place is this picture of new versus old theory, story, and paradigm.

The old way insists we are merely the willy-nilly playthings of random variation and natural selection, or of blind chance, fate, or Karma. The new way says what matters is the power of our vision of the better world and of our desire to journey there.

The old way was and is to outfit a comparative handful of kings, priests, scientists, and politicians to board the ship to the future, leaving the rest of us in ignorance behind. Historically we were and are to be left behind until they run the ship aground, then suddenly we become of value -- suddenly gone from peon to cherished helper status, we are called up to help push the ship they've grounded from the rocks.

The new way is to bring us within the process. By widening our minds and enlisting our energies, the goal is to help drive the ship of state faster and more surely toward the better future not just for the few, but also for us all.

The old theory of Origin, misapplied, tells us we're inherently, predominantly, and indeed overwhelmingly selfish and aggressive. Emergent in Descent, the new theory tells us that, unless we've been unnaturally and disastrously warped, both over the short term and the long term we can be -- and generally are -- more powerfully driven by concern for the regard of others and by love.

The old theory tells us we are primarily driven by the need to perpetuate our own genes or the genes of our kin. The new theory tells us that we are also driven by the need to transcend ourselves, resonating to the whole of humanity and to the whole of life.

The old theory tells us that we are alone in the universe. In the phrase picked up in simultaneous book titles by biophysicist Stuart Kauffman and physicist John Wheeler, the new theory tells us we are "at home in the universe." It tells us we're linked to one another and to the universe by something that's just "out there," whether we call it spirituality, God, the cosmic connection, the Akashic Record, or the quantum vacuum.

The old theory tells us that our destiny is whatever chance and forces larger than ourselves select for us. The new theory offers something immeasurably more difficult to understand, but immeasurably hopeful once we understand it: it tells us that although we are massively constrained by all that really is larger and more powerful than ourselves, we are also driven by self-organizing and self-regulating processes that open up within the constraints a surprisingly large leeway, or "window of opportunity." Given then our capacity for the will to shape it, the choice of destiny to a vital degree is ours.

The old theory tells us there is nothing inherent within us to help us tell good from bad or right from wrong -- that throughout our lives from birth to death "moral sense" must always be hammered into us by self-appointed authorities who know better. The new theory tells us that moral sensitivity has been embedded within us over at least one billion years. It tells us that, by providing an inner voice of basic guidance, it has escalated upward, level by evolutionary level, to reach the culmination of choice within ourselves.

The old theory encourages us to sit back and enjoy the medium, for supposedly the message is settled. Seeing that it has been scientifically worked out and certified by people much smarter than we are, who are we to question what we have been told and will be told again and again?

Oh, sure, the message may not be what we want to hear, but the old theory affirms this is the grim reality we must not only learn and teach but that each of us -- as best we can -- must adapt to.

The new theory and the new story tells us that the message is open-ended and eternal, stretching out of the dim past into the mists of the future for our species. It tells us that we have a voice in the shaping of the message -- but that this message needs a great deal more nurturing, and understanding, and the assignment of much more financing for its R&D, and much more of the power of updated schooling and updated media to its spreading.

Above all, it tells us that we are not just what we more or less dutifully adapt to. Much more importantly -- standing with the best of minds and hearts over the ages -- we are what we refuse to adapt to.

The old theory tells us with scientific precision why we are driven by what used to be called our vices. The new theory scientifically accounts for, and offers hope and encouragement for, the expansion of the kind of values that used to be called our virtues.

Darwin's lost completion of theory accounts for and offers hope for our gaining more of such virtues as the courage of a Gandhi, the compassion of an Eleanor Roosevelt, and the perseverance and self-discipline of a Helen Keller or a Stephen Hawking in the face of debilitating handicaps.

It celebrates the virtues of cheerfulness and friendliness that lighten the life of others, which distinguished Franklin Roosevelt, Will Rogers, Darwin himself, or the Dalai Lama today. It further explains the helpfulness that psychiatrist Robert Coles pointed to in Dorothy Day's leadership of the Catholic Workers Union, or the all-too-often unappreciated responsibility that the all-too-rare best political leaders take on in giving of themselves to look after the rights, livelihoods, and betterment of others throughout the world.

These "virtues" are not just "nice" things for embroidery on Victorian walls or the Boy Scout or Girl Scout Manual. In terms of their evolutionary function, all the virtues I identify here are among those either experientially defined by Darwin in the development of the theory of Descent or empirically defined by psychologists Milton Rokeach, Abraham Maslow, and Darwin's other modern successors in psychology.

Most of all, the theory of Descent accounts for the majesty of mind -- for the virtues of the intellect, of logic, of imagination, of "broadmindedness," and of wisdom embodied in an Einstein, Freud, Marx, in Darwin himself, in the legendary Hypatia, or a Marie Curie, or a Maria Montessori.

The theory of Descent also begins to account for the love of beauty of a Mozart, Chagall, or Schubert, for the passion of a Van Gogh, and for how Isadora Duncan could throw herself into dance or how Sarah Bernhardt could throw herself into drama.

It certainly accounts for the virtue of self-transcendence that Darwin writes of in the human rescuers of others from fires and from drowning. It is also clearly what he had in mind elsewhere in development of the rest of his theory of human evolution. It is this virtue of self-transcendence that he saw emerging among prehumans: the rabbits that stamp their feet, the sheep that whistle, the monkeys that cry out to warn others.

Hopes for a Higher Level of Evolution

In short, what Darwin set out to do as a young man, and then returned to as an old man, is what everybody who hungers for intelligence, decency, stability, and hope in our world today is seeking. It's also what countless progressive successors have since worked (and fought against the always better-financed powers that be) to give us.

Darwin gave us the vision of a completed theory of evolution, where out of the truncated first part -- in which the educated mind of the twentieth century got bogged down -- rises the thrust of what used to be called heart and soul as well as mind into the vast hopeful expansion of a higher level for evolution.

We live by story -- but must the story we are living by drive our species toward extinction?

How do we end the old story and begin the new one?

After a century of seeing and all too often personally experiencing the social and personal devastation that only half a theory or the wrong or inadequate theory of evolution can lead to, surely we're ready for what seems to me the main point of Darwin's life and of our own: that the story we live by is shaped by the prevailing theory of who we are, what we are here for, and where we are going.

If we change the theory, we can change the story, and thus the old pattern to our lives, opening the way to the better world.

David Loye is a psychologist, evolutionary systems scientist, cofounder (with Riane Eisler) of The Center for Partnership Studies, and the author of many books, most recently Darwin's Lost Theory and Darwin's Second Revolution. 






Source Citation: Loye, David. 2010. The New Theory Versus the Old Story. Tikkun 25(6): 48

Posted in 2010, Articles, Environment, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Nature Has a Mind of Its Own

Image "TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN" BY KENNETH ROUGEAU (KENNETHROUGEAU.COM).
Image "TURTLES ALL THE WAY DOWN" BY KENNETH ROUGEAU (KENNETHROUGEAU.COM).


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Nature Has a Mind of Its Own


by Christian de Quincey

The great American psychologist William James had just finished a lecture on the nature of reality when a little old lady approached him. "Excuse me, Professor," she said, "but I'm afraid you've got it all wrong. The world is really supported on the back of a great big turtle."

The venerable professor, being a gentleman, decided to humor the woman: "Tell me, then, what is holding the turtle up?"

Quick as a flash, the old lady snapped back: "Another turtle, of course."

"And what's supporting that turtle?" James asked, trying gently to get her to see her mistake. The conversation went on like this for another round or two until the little old lady interrupted with a noticeable tremor of exasperation:

"Save your breath, sonny. It's turtles all the way down."

At least so the story goes (though some associate it with Bertrand Russell instead of William James). True or not, the "turtle" incident illustrates a fundamental intuition we all share about the nature of reality: Something can't come from nothing. Something must "go all the way down" or all the way back. Even the Big Bang must have had some kind of "fuse." (Religions, of course, say it was God.)

James was teaching around the turn of the last century, but the little old lady's point still carries force. In the modern-day version, turtles are replaced by consciousness. The question now is not what is holding the world up, but where did mind or consciousness come from? In a purely physical universe, the existence of mind is a profound puzzle. And if we are to believe the standard scientific view on this, then mind emerged from wholly mindless matter. But just how this occurred remains a complete mystery. In fact, in Radical Nature, I make the case that it couldn't happen without a miracle. And miracles have no place in science. Instead, our best option is to revive the old lady's insight and proclaim that "consciousness goes all the way down." Mind has always existed in the universe. Cosmos -- the world of nature -- has a mind of its own.

Searching for the "Soul Line"

What's the greatest mystery facing every person on the planet? Ultimately, it's some version of the age-old "Where do I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?" And these questions, which lie at the heart of all philosophy and religion, can be summed up as: "How do I fit in?" How do we humans (with our rich interior lives of emotions, feelings, imaginations, and ideas) fit into the world around us? According to science, the world is made up of mindless, soulless, purely physical atoms and energy. So far, no one has a satisfactory explanation for the existence of nonphysical minds in this otherwise physical universe.

We lack an explanation because our questions already assume something quite disturbing. We assume we are split from nature. We assume that humans are somehow special, that we have minds or souls while the rest of nature doesn't. Some of us draw the "soul line" at higher animals and some of us draw it at living organisms; few of us draw no line at all. Ask yourself: Are rocks conscious? Do animals or plants have souls? Have you ever wondered whether worms or insects might feel pain or pleasure? Can trees feel anything at all? Your answers will reveal where you are likely to draw the line.

In philosophy, this is called the "consciousness cut." Where, in the great unfolding of evolution, did consciousness first appear? In contemporary philosophy and science, the cut-off is usually made at brains -- if not human brains, then the brains of higher mammals. Only creatures with highly developed brains or nervous systems possess consciousness, so the scientific story goes.

Because of our assumed "specialness," because of the deep fissure between humans and the rest of nature, and because of the mind-body split, we need a new understanding of how we -- ensouled, embodied humans -- fit into the world of nature. Our current worldview, based on the materialist philosophy of modern science, presents us with a stark and alienating vision of a world that is intrinsically devoid of meaning, of purpose, of value -- a world without a mind of its own, a world without soul. And this worldview has had dramatic and catastrophic consequences for our environment, for countless species of animals and plants, and for the ecosystems that sustain us all. To be more specific, here's an outline of just some of those consequences.

Ecological crisis: Our environment is being rapidly destroyed. We are right now experiencing a widespread, global crisis of unprecedented proportions involving climate disruption, global warming, and the destruction of rain forests, along with their precious biodiversity. We are now in the midst of the sixth major species extinction since life began on our planet. According to some experts, 50 percent of species currently alive will have disappeared by the end of this century.

Technologies of mass destruction: Through science and engineering, our civilization has developed awesome technologies of destruction (some intentional, some not). Potent nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons threaten the survival of our species, and much of the rest of nature, and many "benign" technologies produce unexpected side effects that pollute and degrade our atmosphere and environment.

Deep alienation: People are alienated from nature. To grasp just how divorced we are from the natural world, imagine trying to find your way home from another town, or even just across town, using only natural landmarks (without following maps or street signs). How sensitive and attuned are you to the natural landscape in which you live? How much has been blocked out, even obliterated, by the constructed environment of tarmac, concrete and steel?

Such alienation leads to all kinds of personal and social problems -- for example, people feeling split from their own bodies and from other people, often unable to integrate their emotions and feelings with their rational minds, often becoming (or at least believing themselves to be) some kind of social misfit. How many people feel at home in their own bodies or feel comfortable at work, with their families, and with strangers? Millions struggle to search for meaning in a meaningless universe.

Where Do We Turn for Answers -- Science or Religion?

Unfortunately, modern science and philosophy are a major source of the problem: their basic story or worldview is "materialism" and they understand the world as made up of "dead atoms." According to science, human consciousness "emerged" from dead, insentient matter. Nature itself is without any intrinsic meaning, value, or purpose because it has no consciousness. For science, there is no spirit in nature. Humans are at odds with the rest of the world -- we are intelligent; nature is dumb. By an accident of nature, we are special.

However, science may be seriously mistaken when it asserts that consciousness is a product of complex brains, and that the rest of vital nature is a product of mindless, purposeless, unfeeling evolution. We may not be so special.

And, as for religion, conventional doctrines promise a reward in some afterlife. They do not teach us to look for meaning in nature. God is supernatural, transcendent, above and beyond the world. Yet we are all conscious beings, aching for meaning. We want meaning in this life.

In times of crisis, such as the Hurricane Katrina catastrophe or the Gulf of Mexico fiasco, people are much more likely to wonder about God's relevance and participation in natural events. The idea that nature has a mind of its own means that the natural intelligence of the world -- unlike a remote God of the skies -- is not preoccupied with exclusively human concerns. Larger forces are at work in the world, and it serves us to pay attention and recognize that we are integral parts of nature, that the divine is all around us, and that humans do not get any special treatment.

According to many forms of religion, we are special by divine fiat. God gave us souls, so that we may survive and transcend the inevitable corruption of the flesh. Human consciousness, spirit, or soul is separate from the physical body, and the path to meaning and salvation is through prayer to a remote, transcendent God. Attention is focused elsewhere, either toward the heavens or toward priests, rabbis, or mullahs.

But the path to the sacred may not be through clergy or churches. In my experience, the sacred is all around us in nature -- I experience it while watching a sunset, playing with animals, walking through a forest or on a beach, swimming in the ocean, climbing a mountain, planting flowers or vegetables, filling my lungs with fresh air, smelling the mulch of rich nourishing soil, dancing through crackling autumn leaves, comforting an injured pet, embracing a loved one, or holding the hand of a dying parent.

The most direct way to God, I believe, is through touching and feeling the Earth and its inhabitants -- being open to the expression of spirit in the most ordinary, as well as in the most awesome, events of daily life. The way to meaning in our lives is by reconnecting with the world of nature -- through exuberant participation or through the stillness of meditation, just being present and listening. And when we do so, we hear, we feel, and we learn: we are not alone -- we are not uniquely special.

For the most part, neither mainstream science nor conventional religion recognizes that humans are not essentially different from the rest of nature. Both regard matter and the world as "dumb." Both assert that human beings are somehow special and stand apart because, they say, only human beings -- or at least creatures with brains and nervous systems -- have consciousness or souls. On the contrary, I say, consciousness goes all the way down.

Mind: The Big Mystery in Evolution

I first became fascinated with consciousness as a seven- or eight-year-old kid in Ireland. The trigger event was discovering an entry on "evolution" in my father's tattered encyclopedia. An old line drawing of a dinosaur caught my attention: not only was I descended from my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on, but the entire human race evolved from some ape-like ancestors, who came from even more primitive mammals, who came from reptiles, who came from amphibians, who came from fishes, who came from jellyfishes, who came from clumps of cells, all the way down to bacteria-like single-celled "infusoria," as they were called in the encyclopedia (which tells you how old it was). I was astounded to learn that my earliest relatives were bacteria!

I spoke the word aloud, enjoying the onomatopoeia -- "e-v-o-l-u-t-i-o-n." It sounded like a great unfolding, a rolling out of hidden forms, now mimicked in the way my tongue uncurled from the roof of my mouth.

Then something astounding grabbed me: not only was I mesmerized by images of descending species culminating in this young fella sitting there at that moment reading a big, dusty old book, but somehow that stupendous unfolding also managed to produce the ability to look back and contemplate the process of evolution itself. Somehow, somewhere along the line, evolution had become aware of itself.

At what stage did evolution produce consciousness? I had no answers. The encyclopedia gave no clues, and my parents and teachers, it seemed, could hardly understand my questions. They spoke to me of "souls" and "God's mysterious ways," and I was left wondering and unsatisfied because, as far as I could make out, they were telling me only humans had souls. But such religious "explanations" did not fit what I had learned from the encyclopedia, nor what I experienced for myself. No, whatever "consciousness" or "soul" was, it was not unique to humans -- but how far back did it go?

I grew up puzzled. Not that such questions burned in my thoughts every day; but from time to time I would think back on those dinosaurs and infusoria and wonder about evolution, wonder about the feelings and thoughts pulsing through me and other creatures.

Radical Nature

In this article, and in my book Radical Nature, I call for a radically new understanding of nature. By "radical," I mean a view of matter radically different from what we learn through science and philosophy. I mean intrinsically sentient matter. "Radical" comes from the Latin radix, meaning "root," the foundation or source of something. Etymologically, "radical" is related to "radial," which means branching out in all directions from a common center or root, and to "radiant," which means, variously, filled with light, shining, sending out rays of light, emanating from a source, manifesting well-being, wholeness, pleasure, or love. "Radical Nature," therefore, implies nature that is sentient to its roots, composed of matter that feels something of the nature of wholeness and love all the way down, and that radiates, or moves itself, from the depths of its own being.

French Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin suggested something similar in his concept of "radial energy," which he proposed was the interior source of universal attraction and love between all elements of the cosmos, pulling them toward increased complexity (contrasted with "tangential energy," the energy physicists work with, pulling in the direction of chaos and entropy).

The standard scientific view, by contrast, is that nature is composed of "dead matter" -- so that even living systems consist, ultimately, of unfeeling, purposeless, meaningless atoms or quarks embedded in equally unfeeling, purposeless, and meaningless fields of force. I challenge this materialist view, and claim that not only is it incoherent but that it is also very dangerous.

The notion of human specialness lies at the core of our civilization's dominant stories. In the grand narratives we tell ourselves -- in our cosmologies, and scientific and religious worldviews that try to make sense of the fact that we are here at all -- humans are typically the central characters.

But, as I argue in Radical Nature, humans (or even animals) are not the only creatures with minds. The entire world of nature tingles with consciousness. Nature literally has a mind of its own. It feels and responds to our presence.

Consciousness All the Way Down

Contrary to what is taught in science today, consciousness is not produced by brains. In fact you don't even need a brain to have a mind. All animals, all plants, even bacteria have something we would call "mind." I'm saying that all bodies of any kind -- all matter -- has consciousness "all the way down" to atoms and beyond to quarks, or quanta or whatever lies at the root of physical reality. In this view, all of nature, all bodies -- from atoms to humans -- tingle with the spark of spirit.

This is an uncommon view, called "panpsychism," and it presents a radical and controversial account of the relationship between bodies and minds, between matter and soul. To be sure, the nature of mind remains a deep mystery for science and philosophy. But success at healing the mind-body split so characteristic of our age depends, I believe, more on a revised understanding of the nature of matter.

In the view I'm proposing, all matter feels, is sentient, and has experience. Matter is adventurous -- as it probes and directs its way through the long, winding path of evolution. From its first appearance after the Big Bang -- from the first atom, molecule, and cell -- to the magnificence and glory of the human brain, the great unfolding of evolution is literally the story the universe is telling to itself. The cosmos is enacting the greatest epic drama imaginable. Truly, it is the greatest story ever told. And we are just one of the storytellers. In the evolution of the cosmos, matter itself is the prime storyteller.

A "New" and Ancient Philosophy

Panpsychism (or what I call "radical naturalism") tells us that matter itself, from the very start (the Big Bang, perhaps) arrived on the scene already tingling with consciousness. Consciousness is not something separate from matter (as dualism tells us), nor is it produced by matter in the form of brains or nervous systems (as materialism insists). Instead, panpsychism tells us that matter -- all matter -- has its own interiority, an ability to feel, to have a point of view, and the ability to move itself from within. In everyday street-speak, we might say, "matter has a mind of its own." In its most primitive form matter is (and always was) sentient, "alive."

This, then, is the "new" story of the universe and the stuff it is made of. If we are to feel at home in the cosmos, if we are to be open to the full inflowing and outpouring of its profound creativity, and if we are not to feel isolated and alienated from the full symphony of cosmic matter -- both as distant as the far horizon of time, and as near as the flesh of our own bodies -- we need a new cosmology story. We need a new way to envision our relationship to the full panorama of the crawling, burrowing, swimming, gliding, flying, circulating, flowing, rooted, and embedded Earth. We need to be and to feel, as well as to think and believe, differently about nature.

Actually this is a very ancient idea -- one of the oldest worldviews, predating Plato and the ancient Greeks. In my book, I trace the lineage of panpsychism back to before the birth of philosophy -- to the ancient tradition of shamanism, in fact. And then I show how, throughout history to the present day, some great philosophers have also shared this view. The philosophy of materialism that dominates our world today is, by comparison, a late arrival -- a kind of detour that has run its course.

Minds from Brains?

Modern science and philosophy are in the dark about consciousness. They cannot even begin to explain how consciousness could emerge from the brain. Materialists such as Berkeley philosopher John Searle simply claim it as a given, obvious "fact." But it is not at all obvious. As it turns out, science is utterly at a loss to explain how this could happen. Indeed, getting spirit-like consciousness from the stuff of the physical brain would require a miracle. But miracles are exactly what scientific materialism denies are possible. In short, for materialism to be true, it would have to be false! Now that's a real dilemma. As soon as science begins to pay attention to consciousness it runs into a dead end. It draws a blank.

When pressed, neuroscientists typically say: "We don't have all the facts just yet. One day we will, and when that day arrives, then we can give you the full explanation." In the meantime it's "just obvious" that mind or consciousness arises from the immense complexity of the brain, or as Searle puts it, the brain squirts out consciousness like the liver secretes bile. But that's not science, it's "promissory materialism." Materialists would like us to believe their promise that one day they will have "all the facts" to explain the mystery. But asking us to believe without any evidence is "faith," not science.

And then they point out that science is always progressing, always gaining more knowledge. Isn't it possible, then, that one day they will have "all the facts"? I don't think so. And here's why (I'll try not to get too technical): According to scientific materialism all of reality is ultimately physical. Reality is objective -- wholly and thoroughly. If so, the challenge facing science is to explain how it could be possible -- even in principle -- for one kind of reality (completely physical and objective) to suddenly (or even gradually) jump to an entirely different kind of reality (one that is subjective and nonphysical): consciousness. That's where the miracle is required -- an ontological jump from an utterly cold, lifeless, unfeeling, and unknown universe to one that now possesses creatures sparkling with life, with feeling, with consciousness. What could possibly account for that "reality jump"?

In philosophy, we call it the "ontological gap" between two radically different kinds of reality. No amount of complex feedback loops in the brain or nervous system can make that jump because all those loops in the brain are themselves still objective -- they can be observed, they can be measured, they are physical. Consciousness is notoriously non-physical (you cannot observe or measure it). In short, you cannot get subjectivity (a state of reality with feeling and sentience) from a state of reality that didn't have the slightest trace of consciousness to begin with. You can't get something from nothing, as James's little old lady was at pains to point out. If you begin with "dead" matter, it stays dead -- no matter how complex and twisted it becomes.

Philosopher Colin McGinn put it this way: "Somehow, we feel, the water of the physical brain is turned into the wine of consciousness, but we draw a total blank on the nature of this conversion.... The mind-body problem is the problem of understanding how the miracle is wrought."

The Most Terrifying Story Ever Told

So what? Why should anyone, other than philosophers, care about the mind-body problem? What difference does it make in real life? I think it makes a big difference. As novelist Daniel Quinn noted in Ishmael, we don't just tell our stories, we enact them. In other words, we live our stories, and we change the world accordingly. In my book, I make the point that all our worldviews, philosophies, cosmologies, mythologies, and so on are ultimately nothing but stories (despite their fancy names). They are ways we have of telling ourselves who we are, how we came to be, and where we're going. We tell ourselves these grand stories to make some sense of the fact that we are here at all. But we don't just tell these stories. We live them, we enact them.

Today, we live in a world dominated by the story called scientific materialism, where nature is believed to be made up of "dead" stuff, of lifeless atoms and molecules. Nature has no consciousness, no feelings, no intrinsic value, meaning, or purpose. And so we relate to nature without sufficient respect for its inherent sacredness. We plunder and rape and exploit it, and the consequences are not at all pretty. We face looming crises in ecology, in social systems, and in our personal lives as we struggle to make sense and meaning out of a world made up of cold, mindless, meaningless stuff. In such a world, all life -- including human life and consciousness -- is just a fluke, an accident. This is an alarming story, and it has drastic consequences.

Bertrand Russell, one of the most respected and influential philosophers of the twentieth century, wrote:

 

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.

This may be the most terrifying story ever told -- nevertheless, it is the one we are born into. It expresses the terrible poetry of a meaningless universe, rolling along chaotic channels of chance, blind and without purpose, sometimes accidentally throwing up the magnificence and beauty of natural and human creations, but inevitably destined to pull all our glories asunder and leave no trace, no indication that we ever lived, that our lonely planet once bristled and buzzed with colorful life and reached out to the stars. It is all for nothing.

Such is the plot and substance of modern science boiled down to its bare essentials, a legacy from the founders of the modern worldview, such as Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Newton, and Darwin.

Even if we have faith in a deeper spiritual dimension, somewhere in our nested system of beliefs that story lurks, ready to rob our visions, dreams, loves, and passions of any meaning, of any validity beyond the scripted directions of a blind, unconscious, purposeless plot maker. If something in our experience stirs and reacts to this with disbelief, even with a question, it is surely worth paying attention to because the possibility that that story is wrong or incomplete makes a real difference.

What if that sweeping materialist vision leaves something out? What if there is something other than an "accidental collocation of atoms" at work in the universe? What if, for instance, the experience or consciousness that contemplated the world and discovered the atoms was itself real? What if the ability of "collocated atoms" to purposefully turn around and direct their gaze to reflect on themselves was more than "accidental"? What if consciousness participates in the way the world works? What if consciousness can dance with the atoms and give them form and direction? What if the atoms themselves choreograph their own dance? What then?

In Radical Nature, I explore an alternative story -- one where the atoms do choreograph their own dance -- a worldview that tells us consciousness matters and that matter is conscious.

Nature Is Sacred

The ancient Greek philosopher Thales said, "Nature is full of gods." Today, we might say it is full of spirit, full of consciousness. Nature literally carries the wisdom of the world, a symphony of relationships among all its forms. Nature constantly "speaks" to us, and feels and responds to our stories. Simply breathing in rhythm with the world around us can be a potent form of prayer. We can open our hearts and pray to the "god of small things," for God lives in pebbles and stones, in plants and insects, in the cells of our bodies, in molecules and in atoms. And by connecting with the God of small things, we can discover this is the same as "the god of all things," great or small. Yes, God is in the heavens, but God is also in the finest grain of sand.

I don't believe we need priests or churches, rabbis or synagogues, mullahs or mosques, to connect us with some transcendent, supernatural God. In the religion of nature -- of a natural God -- clergy become shamans, the whole Earth, and the vast cosmos itself, becomes our temple of worship. In nature spirituality, "priests" do not act as intermediaries between Heaven and Earth. Rather, like shamans, our leaders and elders become guides teaching us to listen to the sacred language of nature -- helping us open our minds and bodies to the messages rippling through the world of plants and animals, rocks and wind, oceans and forests, mountains and deserts, backyards and front porches.

We need to develop a deep respect for nature because it is the source of everything we are. Like us, all of nature has a mind of its own. And this is because matter is not at all what we normally think it to be. Matter is not dead stuff. Matter feels. The very stuff of our bodies, the very stuff of the Earth tingles with its own sentience. It is time for us as a worldwide community to rediscover the soul of matter, to honor and respect the flesh of the Earth, to pay attention to the meaning, purpose, and value embedded in the world beneath our feet and above our heads. Maybe then, we will save ourselves from the otherwise inevitable ecological and civilizational collapse that faces us within our lifetime. I think we can do it, but first we have to learn to listen.

 

Christian de Quincey, Ph.D., is professor of philosophy and consciousness studies at John F. Kennedy University. He is the author of Consciousness from Zombies to Angels, Radical Nature, and many other books. He can be contacted via www.ChristiandeQuincey.com.



de Quincey, Christian. 2010. Nature Has a Mind of Its Own. Tikkun 25(6): 45

Posted in 2010, Articles, Environment, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Presence of Living Organisms

Image BARBARABASH.BLOGSPOT.COM.
Image BARBARABASH.BLOGSPOT.COM.


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

The Presence of  Living Organisms


by Peter Gabel

Ray Barglow criticizes my attribution of an in-dwelling presence to plant life by saying, essentially, that my attribution is wrong because science has demonstrated that the movement of plants can be explained by purely material factors. He cites a passage in which I appeal to the reader to agree that when plants turn toward the light, we sense their presence as living beings. Barglow rejects my appeal, saying that scientists have shown that "hormones" called "auxins" cause this turning, by stimulating cell division on the shady side of the plant, causing the plant to bend away from the shady section and toward the light.

But if we look more carefully at the way the scientist develops his or her knowledge about auxins, we can see that the scientist has simply redescribed the plant's behavior solely in terms of the plant's material elements. The scientist first looks at the plant as an "object," then takes note of the behavioral fact that the plant bends toward the light, then examines biochemical processes that are visible under a microscope that accompany this bending, and then invents certain concepts to name the biochemical elements in the plant that make the bending possible (in this case, the scientist uses the Greek-derived concept "hormone," meaning "stimulate," and the similarly Greek-derived concept "auxin," meaning "grow," to describe the empirically observed gooey stuff that appears to be associated with increased cell division in the plant). The scientist has not by this process explained what causes the plant perceived as an "object" to bend; he or she has simply redescribed the bending process itself in terms of the visible, material processes that are associated with the bending.

The great error of "scientism," as we refer to it in Tikkun, is to mistake this material redescription for an explanation. Since the scientist may believe, as a matter of conviction, that all that can be said to be "real" is what is visible to the objectifying, detached gaze, the scientist may a) notice the plant's bending behavior in the presence of sunlight; b) invent certain concepts like auxins to describe the biochemical correlates of the behavior; c) "reify" the concepts, meaning treat the gooey stuff he or she has named "auxin" as if it were a real thing called auxin; and d) assume that this production of auxin is the "true cause" that explains the bending behavior. He or she may assume -- "Well, there's nothing else going on that we can see."

I acknowledge that it is possible that there is "nothing going on" except a mere physical process -- that sunlight stimulates the tip of a plant to spur the production of auxins that cause the plant to bend. But it is also possible that the plant as a living and vital presence responds to the warmth and radiance of the sunlight and turns toward it responsively, with the production of auxins being merely the biochemical, material correlate of that turning process. This latter interpretation, which I favor, understands the plant as a spiritual-material unity rather than reducing the plant to the materialist dimension that is visible to the detached, scientific eye. To see the spiritual element requires that we trust our intuitive response to the plant's outreaching tendrils, that we "let ourselves go toward the plant" rather than "standing back" and looking "at" it. I say to the scientist: "If you let go of your standing back and if you instead ‘go forward,' and if you then spontaneously sense the plant's responsiveness to the sun, you will see it is reaching toward the sunlight, and you have helpfully showed the material means, the biochemical correlative process, by which it has enabled itself to do this. Amazing!"

By "standing back" I do not mean that biologists are detached people or that they don't greatly appreciate nature. I know lots of them do and that's why they become interested in the natural world. By "detachment" or "standing back" I'm referring to the epistemological stance of empiricism itself, a detachment that is the very basis of its claim to objectivity and neutrality as regards its own conception of "validity." I'm saying as long as you take that stance, you can't perceive the spiritual/invisible dimension of the world. On the other hand, when you "go forward" or let go of that neutral di-stance, you become one with the spiritual dimension, a spiritual dimension that is actually self-evident to the engaged intuition that comprehends life moment to moment. I'm also claiming that that engaged intuition can approach its own objectivity through communal discourse and reflection, in a way that's analogous to but yet completely different from the natural science method -- namely, by serious reflective discussion in a peer community in which intuitively grounded perceptions are tested discursively and corrected for biases such as anthropomorphism, projection, and other common interpretive distortions.

But please note that I am not merely saying that the spiritual way of seeing exists alongside the scientific way. Rather, I am saying that the spiritual dimension -- the dimension of the life-world accessible to intuition -- is the ontological ground of the total epistemological enterprise. This ground is Being itself, and to "know" the life-world, the knower must travel a pathway from one's own interior to the interior of the known. One must "go forward" via intuition and empathy into the heart of the known, which is composed of the same Being, the knower's own Being.

For specific purposes, the knower may make use of an ingenious special practice that we now call the scientific method, with its techniques of detachment, objectification of phenomena, correlation of sense data, experimentation including altering of material conditions, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. This specialized practice produces information that may be useful and "valid" according to its own terms but is not true in an ontological sense, nor does it aspire to truth in this sense. There is a possibility that what we now call inanimate matter is in reality just dead, inert matter, in which case the existing disciplines of physics and inorganic chemistry might actually be producing truth because there may be no ontological commonality between the knower and the known, and the known may in fact be nothing but a passive material object, although this is doubtful considering the vitality of what we call energy and the relationship of mass to energy. But as regards animate matter, the use of what I'm calling the scientific method can produce no more than provisional verification of hypotheses pertaining to the known phenomenon when we pretend that the phenomenon is a mere object -- when we treat it as if it were an object for some useful purpose. It can't be "true" in an ontological sense because an animate phenomenon exists, is alive, is a portion of the Being of the knower.

In the context of evolutionary theory, the scientific determination to exclude the "invisible" from what is "real" has led to an unfortunate aspiration to explain the entire unfolding and development of life by the "standing back" approach. Like my plant scientist, the evolutionary biologist seems to want to "stand back" from the fossil record, examine parts of objectified bodies as they change over time, and then invent a concept that can explain the entire process without recourse to anything "invisible." The main explanatory concept since Darwin has been "natural selection." By "standing back" the scientist can "observe" that some plants and animals have survived and others have not, that adaptive changes have facilitated survival, and since no other mechanisms of evolutionary progress that satisfy the requirements of "visibility" have been sufficiently supported by empirical evidence, the scientist proposes that natural selection explains all of evolution. With the growth and development of the science of genetics, adaptive changes themselves have come to be explained by genetic mutations that are presumed to occur randomly and accidentally (a purposeful alteration would depend on an "invisible" influence that the "standing back" method has declared to be nonexistent, or at least unknowable).

As in the case of the plant scientist interpreting plants' turning toward sunlight, the Darwinian evolutionary biologist uses the "standing back" method of looking to develop very useful and helpful-to-humankind knowledge about the material world -- in this case identifying the very existence of evolution itself -- but then goes too far and allows his or her method of looking to box him/her in to a closed and self-referential explanatory narrative that is a matter of belief rather than proof or demonstration. By adhering to the a priori conviction or belief that only what is visible to the standing-back eye, the detached eye, is real, the biologist locks him/herself into an explanatory hypothesis that says: "All that is visible is survival. Therefore accidental adaptation furthering survival is all there is."

Here are four problems with this proposal:

1.      It suggests that the vast unfolding of life across time and through the extraordinary manifestations of the various species of plants and animals can be accounted for by a single, essentially passive factor: survival. It declares a priori based on the "visibility-to-the-detached-eye" requirement that there is no interiority or forward motion to the ascension from microscopic bacteria to human life.

2.      Because the natural sciences method excludes all but the empirically visible -- because it erases by epistemological fiat the influence of Being or Spirit on the evolutionary process -- the theory of natural selection can be entirely "correct" on its own terms and yet be false in relation to reality. The fact that evolution can be explained by natural selection does not mean that it is explained by natural selection, and even if there were a perfect fit between the hypothesis of natural selection and the empirical data provided by the fossil record and other sources, that would only make the theory the more deceptive if the excluded aspect of reality, the spiritual dimension, is in truth at the heart of the matter.

3.      As Christian de Quincey emphasizes in "Nature Has a Mind of Its Own" (page 45 in this issue), the theory of natural selection simply cannot account for the appearance of consciousness or the evolution of consciousness because to call consciousness an accidental adaptation in the service of survival suggests that non-conscious matter could somehow, by an accidental mutation, make an ontological "leap" into becoming sentient, then conscious, then conscious of itself.

4.      Even apart from the problem of accounting for the appearance of consciousness, because of the visibility-to-the-detached-eye requirement, the theory of natural selection and all other materialist theories of evolution reduce the totality of the evolution of existence to its objectified physical manifestations. This means that as I, a sixty-three-year-old man typing on a computer in the year 2010, sit here and think about the prevailing natural-selection theory of evolution from microorganisms to me, there is no possibility of any interior, existential relationship between me as an actual living person and all the life-forms that have preceded me and that have been evolving "toward" me. By an unconscious trick inhering in the method itself, inherent in the visibility-to-the-detached-eye requirement, the evolutionary biologist has both erased his own existence as a living existential being from the evolutionary process and "canceled out" the Being of everything from the entire upward movement of the evolutionary enterprise. To put this another way, Mr. Darwin is not in his own theory and neither is any one else. As the Talking Heads put it, "lights on, nobody home."

What I am proposing is not that we reject the contributions of Charles Darwin or of the great naturalist field of evolutionary biology, but that we open ourselves to the possibility that Darwin and his successors have made an error in radically separating spirit (or consciousness) from matter and that we must take a new approach if we are to grasp the spiritual-material unity of the life-world in its true unfolding through its manifestations in plant, animal, and human life. This requires that we adopt a new method of gaining knowledge based upon a new conception of the Being of living manifestations (there are no "living things"). This we do by beginning with our own Being as living presences inhabiting and co-constituting a meaningful life-world suffused with desire and intention, including both material projects (the desire not merely to survive but to achieve full vitality or health) and inter-subjective social projects (the desire to give and receive nurturance and love, to complete ourselves through transparent mutual recognition, to together transcend ourselves toward some ultimate unity or Oneness). Beginning with the recognition of this spiritual essence at the heart of his or her own Being, the scientist then must "go forward and comprehend" rather than only "stand back and observe"; he or she must embrace the teeming life-world as a universal spiritual presence manifested uniquely in every embodied living organism. The central medium of investigation in this approach to the pursuit of knowledge is not detached analysis of empirically visible sense data, but rather intuition of meaningful manifestations of embodied social consciousness. In other words, we must anchor ourselves in the self-evident knowledge that Being has of its own presence and intentionality, and engage in empathic apprehension of the other forms of life that surround us in our own time, or past forms of life accessible through meaning-revealing artifacts that both point backward toward shaping material and social conditions and forward toward the projects that these earlier life-forms were at their moment on earth seeking to realize. This is the path by which we can come to grasp the evolution of the species as the upward movement of Being that it self-evidently is, worthy of the vast intelligence manifested in every living form and worthy of the immanent bond that unites us to every living form.

Peter Gabel is associate editor of Tikkun and the author of The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning (available through our online store at www.tikkun.org).


Source Citation: Gabel, Peter. 2010. The Presence of  Living Organisms. Tikkun 25(6): 42
 

Posted in 2010, Articles, Core Vision, Environment, Political Vision and Spiritual Wisdom, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

The Secret Life of Plants

Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

The Secret Life of Plants

by Raymond Barglow

Image CREATIVE COMMONS/SUNSHINECITY
Image CREATIVE COMMONS/SUNSHINECITY

Is there a spiritual dimension to the story of the universe that biological evolution tells?

In "Creationism and the Spirit of Nature" (Tikkun, November/December 1987), an essay reprinted in The Bank Teller and Other Essays on the Politics of Meaning, Peter Gabel has elaborated an answer to this question. He believes that "spirituality" is "manifested in every life-form as both presence (or existence) and desire." To illustrate this idea, Gabel cites the tendency of a plant to arch toward the sun:

We have all seen this many times -- the upper leaves and branches seem to stretch in a sensual way up toward the warmth and the light, while the lower leaves and branches do the best they can and curl around toward the sun with the same apparent desire and intention. A scientist would tell us that it is mere sentimentality or personification to think that the plant is leaning toward anything, that what is "really" going on is "phototropism," the first phase of something called "photosynthesis," a process by which the chlorophyll in the plant combines with light to produce oxygen.... Ascribing intention or desire to the plant's movement attributes an immanence or inner life to the plant that is not observable by objective, impartial methods, and therefore cannot qualify as "knowledge" according to science.

Rejecting this particular scientific paradigm, Gabel recommends a new scientific method -- one that enables us to "free ourselves to see the plant as a presence like ourselves, desiring the nourishment of the sun's warmth and light and undergoing vibrant physical transformations as this desire is realized."

I believe that this is a misreading of the natural world we inhabit. Gabel is searching here for intentionality in a domain -- botany -- where it cannot be found in the form he discusses. Yes, there is something deep in the wellsprings of our nature that seeks connection -- something that opens up and reaches out. Out of that, idealism is formed: we look for the light in others and ourselves, hoping to redeem a world largely thrust into darkness. Gabel himself has written very eloquently about such yearnings, which indeed resonate with a leaf opening, a vine spiraling, a seedling inclining toward the sun. I agree that recognition and expression of these longings may be essential to our future on the planet. But are we really reconnecting with and respecting our natural surroundings when we ascribe desire as widely as Gabel does? Let's reconsider his botanical illustration.

According to the scientific account, plant movement toward light results from the action of certain plant hormones. Such movement was investigated by Charles Darwin and his son Francis, who published their findings in The Power of Movement in Plants (1880). They hypothesized that an internal biochemical signal accounts for the growth of seedlings toward light. Their observations would later lead to the discovery of plant hormones called "auxins" that induce plant cell change.

An auxin migrates to the shady side of a plant, where it modifies cell division and growth. As a result, shady-side cells stretch out more than illuminated ones, and that causes the plant to incline toward the source of light. The detailed interactions of auxin with cells is also increasingly understood, involving alterations in cell wall rigidity, gene expression, facilitation of ion transport, etc.

I'm simplifying a story here whose wonder lies in its intricate biochemical complexity. The relevant point is that there is no "explanatory gap" here, and hence no explanatory role for intention to play. Given the biochemistry of plant phototropism, and given any plausible definition of "intentionality," it seems evident that the leaning of a blade of grass toward the light has nothing to do with any "intention" or "desire" on the part of the plant.

Do our immediate experiences tell us otherwise? Do they really affirm the presence of intentionality -- preference, desire, volition -- throughout nature, including the plant world? Let's note that, although experiences are of course relevant to understanding our surroundings, they do not speak with only one voice, and their revelations call for interpretation. Experiences are as diverse, and sometimes as contradictory, as the persons who have them. Peter Gabel, like European Romantic poets two centuries ago, perceives in a plant desire and intentionality. Eckhart Tolle, drawing differently upon the same tradition, finds instead stillness and peace: "Look at a tree, a flower, a plant. Let your awareness rest upon it. How still they are, how deeply rooted in Being. Allow nature to teach you stillness."

It does not make the inclination of a seedling to the light any less lovely to recognize that its way of moving is not our own, i.e., not intentional. To be sure, some human actions are, like plant movements, driven by hormones. But in our affairs, motivation and purpose play an explanatory role that has no counterpart in the botanical world. This is a point that philosophers such as Daniel Dennett and Tyler Burge have made persuasively in their writings over the past two decades.

Indeed, not all truth is scientific. In our experiences of nature's many dominions we find resonances, parallels, and kinships that lie beyond the purview of science. Wordsworth, Dickinson, and Frost give expression to an understanding as profound -- and as relevant in an era of ecological crisis -- as anything that science tells us. Music too -- e.g., the Ashanti talking drums, Brahms's Requiem ("For all flesh is like grass"), Stevie Wonder's homage to the "Secret Life of Plants" -- invokes and interprets nature.

But we err if we base our explanations of nature's ways upon a literal-minded reading of metaphors. A snow bank builds when layers of flakes "find a bed" upon those that have preceded them, but they do not do so because they are tired and want to sleep. Salt dissolves in water because water is an ionizing agent, not because the crystals have a death wish. And a blade of grass inclines toward the sun not because of a desire to do so but thanks to auxin-plant cell interactions.

Image SABIHA BASRAI (BASED ON ORIGINAL BY RAYMOND BARGLOW)
Image SABIHA BASRAI (BASED ON ORIGINAL BY RAYMOND BARGLOW)
 

Is there mystery of a kind in the myriad ways of nature? There is, but it seems to me that we misunderstand that when we project human ways into botany or physics or astronomy. Must we find our own features reflected back to us everywhere we look? This is akin to the hubris that Spinoza noted when he considered doctrines of intelligent design. Intentionality is one way of being in the world. Why universalize it? Spinoza views as self-centered and fallacious our inclination to cast G-d and nature in our own, human image.

I don't mean to dismiss here an essential task that lies before us: establishing a sustainable "partnership," so to speak, with a planet whose life forms are amazingly prolific, but often endangered. The terms of that partnership aren't understood in the same way by all of us, however. I welcome this diversity, and appreciate this opportunity to share what I take to be a scientific perspective.

Raymond Barglow lives in Berkeley, and his interests range from the philosophy of biology to the history and meaning of German social democracy.


Source Citation: Barglow, Raymond. 2010. The Secret Life of Plants. Tikkun 25(6): 40
 

Posted in 2010, Articles, Environment, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged | 1 Comment

The Responsibility of Theology to Science

Image CREATIVE COMMONS/M1KEEZ
Image CREATIVE COMMONS/M1KEEZ


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

The Responsibility of Theology to Science


by Joan Roughgarden

Artists who create icons and sacred music often describe their activity as a form of prayer. I think too that if nature is understood, in some sense, as the work of God, then seeking to discover the ways of nature through science might also be experienced as a form of prayer. For this reason I felt drawn to applaud one assertion in particular made by Rabbi Arthur Green in Tikkun's March/April 2010 issue: "The evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time."

I thank Tikkun for inviting me to join the conversation on God and science that Rabbi Green, Peter Gabel, and others started here this spring. I write as an evolutionary biologist and will begin by offering my response to Rabbi Green's piece on "Sacred Evolution."

I agree that religious teaching might prosper from reinvesting stories of origin (or creation) with new meaning rather than having religious teachings continue to be, as Rabbi Green puts it, "over-involved with proclaiming the truth of our own particular stories" from the sacred texts of our several denominations.

Yet, I demur from his recommendation that we should instead "understand the task of the theologian to be one of reframing, accepting the accounts of origins and natural history offered by the scientific consensus, but helping us to view them in a different way, one that may guide us toward a more profound appreciation of that same reality." Or, as a later commentary in Tikkun by Bruce Ledewitz puts it, accepting a framework of "science first and religion adapts." This framework places great, even unquestioned, faith in the ability of scientists to offer a correct account of the processes in nature, a faith that will seem misplaced the more one delves into what scientists actually conclude from the evidence they actually possess.

I do not challenge the scientific method, of course, nor doubt scientists' ability, in principle, to deliver accurate and correct knowledge of what happens in nature. Experiments, tests of alternative hypotheses, and new technologically enabled probes of the microscopic and of outer space do objectively reveal the state of nature -- that is, when scientists actually bother to do all the experiments, bother to entertain alternative hypotheses, bother to use the latest technology, and so forth. And who is to demand that the science informing theological inquiry be the best available science? We will get (eventually) the best available science on matters such as molecular motors and global change because much profit depends on the results. But who cares about the quality of the science informing theological reflection? Hardly anyone. And so those few scientists who do venture into offering summaries of what their science means for religious and ethical concerns are free to make up nearly any story they want. The problem is not so much a question of personal recklessness by individual scientists, although that happens too; the problem is mainly the ideological uniformity of scientific peer groups.

The subdiscipline of evolutionary biology that pertains to how family life is organized in birds, mammals, and other vertebrates, teaches -- according to Geoff Parker, an evolutionary biologist in the United Kingdom -- that family life is now understood as a "cauldron of conflict," featuring sibling-sibling, parent-offspring, and parent-parent conflict. A diagram of all the routes of conflict presumably present in any family is called a "battleground." But it emerges that the word "conflict" enjoys a special meaning in this area of science. Conflict is assumed to remain present, by definition, regardless of whether it has been "resolved." That is, suppose you buy a car from a dealer. There is an initial conflict of interest, wherein you (the buyer) want to buy the car on the cheap, and the dealer wants to take you for a ride. But after haggling, you drive away with the car and the dealer pockets the cash -- conflict resolved; matter settled. In evolutionary biology, however, the conflict is assumed to remain present even once the deal has been struck. Because of their peculiar understanding of "conflict," evolutionary biologists -- mostly those at Oxford, Cambridge, Bristol, and Imperial College, who talk primarily with one another and review each other's manuscripts -- can confidently declare in a private language that conflict in family life is universal and unceasing. And Rabbi Green can then accept this narrative, writing:

We will not understand our own human nature without taking into account the fierce struggle we underwent to arrive and to achieve the dominance we have over this planet ... [we need a] reformulation by a new and powerful harmonistic vision, one that will allow even the weakest and most threatened of creatures a legitimate place in this world and will call upon us not to wipe it out by careless whim. This is the role of today's religion.

Clearly, the project of reformulation will be quite different, perhaps even unnecessary, if the scientific account of the universality of conflict is incorrect.

So, I do not agree with Rabbi Green that science is first, and religion adapts. I do not agree that the task of the theologian should now be one of reframing what science says in order to guide us to a more profound appreciation of science's reality. I do not agree that the task of theologians is to provide a reformulation of contemporary science featuring a new harmonistic vision. Indeed, I think that Rabbi Green's plans for a future theology abdicates the humanistic responsibility to critique science. Instead, I think the task of theologians (and ethicists, more generally) should be to hold scientists' feet to the fire, to insist again and again that the scientific account of nature supplied by scientists be true and accurate. This will require a new generation of theologians trained and experienced in the ways and content of science, and a new generation of scientists drawn from different backgrounds from those that have traditionally supplied the exclusionary corridors of academia.

Rabbi Green reveals a progressional view of evolutionary history and emphasizes the distinctness of humans from other animals with a focus on the mind. He refers to "the entire course of evolution, from the simplest life-forms millions of years ago, to the great complexity of the human brain" and adds:

It would also be disingenuous of me as a human to say that the emergence of human consciousness, even the ability to be thinking and writing about these very matters, is nothing more than a small series in the unfolding linear process wrought by natural selection. Yes, that is indeed how we came about. But there is a different meaning to human existence that cannot be denied. The self-reflective consciousness of humans, combined with our ability to take a long bio-historical view of the whole unfolding that lies behind (and ahead of) us, makes a difference. Yes, all creatures are doing the "work of God" by existing, feeding, reproducing, and moving the evolutionary process forward. But we humans, especially in our age, are called upon to do that work in a different way.

I see no grounds for a progressional view of evolutionary history. I see no justification for singling out any species-specific character such as the brain in humans, echolocation in bats, and the wingspan of the wandering albatross. I deny there is any different meaning to human existence compared with that of other species.

To the contrary, our sense of emotion has a much longer evolutionary history than our brain, and is more tried, true, and refined. We have less risk of error when listening to our body and feelings than to our minds, and I suggest the most reliable route to God is through sensation rather than thought. Indeed, I suspect that most, perhaps all, people of faith are drawn to companionship with God by a shared feeling of community rather than by theological reflection.

Turning now to the March/April 2010 essay by Peter Gabel, I find I'm at once inspired, yet puzzled, by his call for "sacred evolutionary biologists." Mr. Gabel writes:

To understand the sacred drama of the evolutionary process, we need the help of evolutionary biologists who are not neutral observers in the classically liberal sense, but who connect the sacred within themselves to the sacred dimension of what they observe in the natural world.

I would like to think that I could help answer this call. Yet, I wonder what this call might mean in practical terms. After all, whatever is in nature, simply is. My own sense of the sacred cannot change what is actually happening in nature. A sacred perspective might supply a disposition to propose hypotheses during the course of scientific research that might not occur to, say, an atheist scientist, especially hypotheses that pertain to a ubiquity of sharing, cooperation, and negotiation. Widening the variety of hypotheses for evolutionary phenomena beyond those that typically occur in a strictly secular perspective would surely improve the chance that scientific investigations yield an accurate and reliable account of nature. And the picture of nature that emerges might be more appealing than a purely secular account provides. I hope this assessment of what the call for sacred evolutionary biologists will produce is consistent with what Mr. Gabel has in mind.

Joan Roughgarden, an evolutionary ecologist and biology professor at Stanford University, is the author of The Genial Gene: Deconstructing Darwinian Selfishness and Evolution and Christian Faith: Reflections of an Evolutionary Biologist.



Source Citation: Roughgarden, Joan. 2010. The Responsibility of Theology to Science. Tikkun 25(6): 37

Posted in 2010, Articles, Rethinking Religion, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A Spiritual Approach to Evolution

Image Credit HTTP://BLOG.CASTLEINTHEAIR.BIZ/
Image Credit HTTP://BLOG.CASTLEINTHEAIR.BIZ/


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

A Spiritual Approach to Evolution

by Michael Lerner

Don't worry, we are not about to join the creationists with their rejection of evolution and insistence that God planted all those dinosaur bones to test your faith. The set of articles you are about to read are written by people who accept the notion that the earth evolved in the past five billion years in roughly the ways that current evolutionary biologists describe it, but some of them argue that the force driving evolution is not adequately described within the terms of contemporary scientism.

We don't expect that reading these essays is going to be easy on you. The fact is that most liberals and progressives, in fact, most people who have completed high school, have been heavily indoctrinated into the dominant religion of this historical period, the religion of scientism, and as can be expected, will feel deeply uneasy -- if not feeling that they are outright disloyal -- if they consider the possibility that another worldview is not only possible but plausible. 

Why We Strongly Support Science

But please keep in mind that we are strongly supportive of the enterprise of science itself. Science is one of the great advances in human history, and the information it has produced through careful empirical observation and measurement has allowed us to cure many diseases, improve the material conditions of our lives, and gain insight into the complexity of the universe. Science offers us a degree of control over the natural world and hence a heightened sense of security in the face of real dangers.

We are strong believers in the need for increased funding for science and for freeing science from its current subservience to military ends (to which our government deflects scientific research by offering funding from the bloated defense department budget) and from the capitalist marketplace (which often deflects scientific research toward the needs of corporations to make short-term profits without regard to the well-being of the earth or most of its inhabitants). We advocate for more monies dedicated to environmental science, which has already helped us understand the irrationality of the current ways we treat the earth, and toward health promotion and illness prevention (including prevention of the environmental impacts by corporations that increase susceptibility to a wide variety of illnesses, including cancer and Alzheimer's disease).

Taught correctly, science can also be a stimulus to a heightened sense of awe and wonder at the grandeur and beauty of the universe. Read The Faith of Scientists by Nancy H. Frankenberry (Princeton University Press, 2008) to get a sense of the range of scientists who have developed an inner spiritual life. As Einstein famously quipped, "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind." One can be a passionate advocate of science, as I am, and yet be a strong opponent of scientism, just as I am a strong advocate for the right of Jews to a state in the Middle East and yet a strong opponent of creating a religion of Zionism. It is similar to how one can be a strong advocate for egalitarianism and democratic control of the economy without being a communist in the sense that existed in various totalitarian societies of the twentieth century, or a strong lover of the United States without being a believer that our current economic and political system is just or desirable.

Scientism: When Science Becomes a Religion

Scientism is the belief that nothing is real and nothing can be known in the world except that which can be observed and measured. A person who adopts a scientistic perspective believes that science can in principle answer every question that can be answered. Any claim about the world that cannot be validated, at least in principle, or at least falsified on the basis of empirical data or measurement is dismissed as meaningless.

So, take a claim that we at Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives, our education arm, frequently make: "Caring for other people is an ethical imperative." From a scientistic perspective, this claim cannot be verified or falsified through any set of observations, so it really isn't a claim about the world at all but merely a statement of our personal tastes, choices, or proclivities. Similarly, claims about God, ethics, beauty, love, and any other facet of human experience that is not subject to empirical verification -- all these spiritual dimensions of life -- are dismissed by the scientistic worldview as inherently unknowable and hence nothing by which we can ever agree to run our civilization, or they are reduced to some set of observable behaviors (sexual love gets measured by erections, vaginal secretions, orgasms, or changes in brain states; and all ethical and aesthetic claims are treated in a similarly reductive way).

Scientism thus extends science beyond its valuable role as a way to understand those parts of our world that are subject to empirical verification: it makes claims that are either dismissive or reductive of those aspects of our lives that are not subject to empirical verification or measurement. Scientism makes a power jump, appropriating the honorable associations of the word "know" to a narrowly constructed definition and thereby excluding all kinds of knowledge labeled as "merely subjective," which it deems inappropriate for public discourse. Over the course of several centuries of modernity, scientism not only redefined knowledge, it also built economic, educational, and political institutions that accepted this understanding of knowledge. These institutions proceeded to impose the religion of scientism on most thinking people, leaving resistance to it in the hands of those who had little respect for intellectual life and who could thereby be ridiculed as fundamentalist know-nothings.

Thus scientism became the dominant religion of the contemporary Western world, and increasingly of the entire world. Yet it is a belief system that has no more scientific foundation than any other religious system. Consider its central religious belief: "That which is real and can be known is that which can be verified or falsified by empirical observation." The claim sounds tough-minded and rational, but what scientific experiment could you perform to prove that it is either true or false? The fact is that there is no such test. By its own criterion, scientism is as meaningless as any other metaphysical claim.

Secular people frequently respond by saying that scientism is simply what it is to be rational in the modern world. But spiritual people respond by saying: Why should we adopt that particular standard of rationality? Is there some scientific test that can prove that this is indeed the rational way to think? Absolutely not. Even the view that "one should not multiply entities beyond necessity" -- a view that early scientists took from William of Occam, whose famous "razor" makes the correct point that, when doing science, one should seek the simplest possible explanation of a phenomenon -- has no empirical foundation beyond the enterprise of science. It is not a guide to how to live or to define rationality.

If scientism appears intuitive to many, it is largely because we live in a society where this is the dominant religious belief. In fact, we even describe ideas that are of no intellectual value as "non-sense" (that is, without foundation in sense data) and ideas that are obvious to everyone as "common sense" (as though all that can be shared knowledge comes from our sensations). We don't notice these peculiar usages, because that's what it means to be part of a religious system -- its peculiar ideas suddenly seem so obvious that we can only shake our heads in disbelief that anyone would think something else.

I actually don't believe most scientists are believers in scientism. But like the rest of us, they live in a society in which scientism predominates, so only the most reflective of them tend to make a point of distinguishing themselves from the dominant religion, and then usually only when they've achieved tenure or financial success and don't worry about being dismissed as a kook. For many of them, as well as for other intellectuals and members of liberal and progressive circles, the fear of the know-nothings taking over and imposing their fundamentalist perspective drives them into a vigorous piety about scientism.

Scientism and the Left

The vigorous adherence of many on the left to this religion is explained in detail in my book The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. What is important to say here is that this dominant religion leads to a marginalization of ethical and spiritual values in the public sphere. Since those values are not verifiable through scientistic criteria, we get a bizarre distortion in our society in which professionals who bring radically caring values into their work are seen as subjective, moralizing, unprofessional, and inappropriate "ideologues" who may rightly be subject to dismissal from their work. In contrast, we spiritual progressives want a change in the public sphere so that the values we articulate as part of a New Bottom Line do in fact shape our public life together. That New Bottom Line seeks to define rationality, progress, and productivity not only in terms of things that are easy to measure or observe (money and power) but also in terms of those that cannot be measured through empirical science: love, kindness, generosity, ethically and ecologically sensitive behavior, awe and wonder at the grandeur of the universe, and caring for all people.

In The Left Hand of God I try to explain why so many men in liberal and progressive circles, and the women who are trying to become like them, eschew anything "soft" like values or spirituality because it makes them feel too vulnerable to the assault of right-wingers. Having grown up in a culture that validates "real men" as being tough and dominating others, these liberal and progressive men retain in their unconscious the traumatic experience of being put down as kids and called "sissies" when they showed caring for the powerless or eschewed fights and aggressive behavior. So as adults, they feel the need to show that if they are championing something "soft" like caring for others around the planet or eliminating poverty or war they will again be subject to humiliating put-downs unless they can show that they are "tough-minded" -- and that translates into rejecting anything spiritual or the language of love, caring, generosity, or awe and wonder. They reject anything that can be dismissed as soft because it is not verifiable through the "hard data" of empirical science. Ironically, right-wing men have no such problem, since the policies of war and supporting the interests of the rich are already seen as tough-minded, so they have the psychic space to embrace spiritual or religious language without fear of being dismissed as "girly men" (the ultimate put-down in a male chauvinist culture).

It's an easy step from this pathological fear of softness to the head-oriented and heart-aversive and religiophobic language of the Democratic Party liberals and much of the independent Left. That's why they need spiritual progressives so badly.

Once we open the door to other approaches to the world than the one based on scientism, it becomes possible to understand the relationship between mind and body in a different way. Scientism led to two opposing views: first, the idea that the mind is nothing more than a particular arrangement of material reality; and second, a kind of dualism that radically separates mind from body and sees consciousness or mind as some kind of separately existing reality -- perhaps a very ghostly reality that has nothing to do with the "hard" category of matter.

What the World Really Looks Like

I, on the other hand, view matter as a materialist construct that has no application in the real world, though it may be useful for certain approaches to science. In the real world, matter, spirit, consciousness, awarenesss, nous, and mind are all one integrated whole. Matter never exists without some level of awareness, consciousness, or yearning. All matter yearns for greater levels of interconnectedness, freedom, awareness, consciousness, love, generosity, cooperation, and beauty, and what moves evolution is this yearning of all being to be more fully actualized. Matter seeks this actualization by playfully exploring every possibility and intentionally seeking to enjoy itself through this play. And it is through this intentional play that matter ultimately discovers how to fulfill this deepest yearning. God is the totality of this process: the yearning, and the growing awareness, and the self-awareness of the universe as a whole. This view does not posit God as separate from the universe with a preexisting plan, but rather as the entirety of all that is, because there is nothing else but God -- "and you shall know in your heart, that the transformative power is the ruling force of all this creation, there is nothing else" (Deuteronomy 4:39).

This view is derived from the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah, and the subsequent development of consciousness in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century versions of Hasidism. It is no longer mainstream in contemporary Judaism, because so many Jews have abandoned God to worship the State of Israel. But it is the direction emerging from many of us in the Jewish Renewal movement, which originally played a central role in the development of Tikkun magazine. Jewish Renewal is also the movement in which I received my rabbinical ordination. I articulated a version of this view in my book Jewish Renewal (Putnam, 1994), when I described my relationship to God as analogous to a liver cell's relationship to the totality of a person's consciousness. The liver cell is not separate from the person (i.e., God), who can at times become aware of it, and the cell can receive communications from the person (within the limits of what a liver cell can receive), but the person is more than its liver cells, or any other part of its body: it is the consciousness of the totality, and yet is not constrained by the totality. I'll get back to this in the next issue of Tikkun.

So I strongly agree with Arthur Green that evolution of species is the greatest sacred drama of all time. But what I am adding to Green's argument is this: that what drives evolution is the spiritual yearning of all being that is manifest in every particular and that comes together as the consciousness of the entire universe. It is a yearning for greater consciousness, love, generosity, complexity, cooperation, playfulness, gratitude, and forgiveness. Of course this is a faith statement in the same way that scientism is a faith statement -- because no amount of data is ever going to conclusively prove either this view or a more materialist and mechanistic view of what drives the evolutionary process forward.

Most of the authors in this section on evolution are not rooted in that particular tradition, but some do share with Jewish mysticism this commitment to a fundamental unity of all being and a rejection of the radical disjunction between matter and spirit. As Christian de Quincey insists, consciousness (or mind or awareness) is part of every aspect of being "all the way down" to the tiniest component of being, despite the fact that such a claim is so counter to the "common sense" of post-Enlightenment thought (though not to what Dave Belden imaginatively describes from the future as the second Enlightenment in which scientism has been abandoned). It is Peter Gabel, my close friend for the past thirty-five years, and Tikkun's indispensible associate editor, who takes this position and most forcefully defends the notion that evolution can best be understood as powered and directed by this spiritual aspect of all being.

I hope you'll carefully read these essays and allow yourself to imagine what the world would look like if the perspective being developed here were in fact as true as I believe it to be. And imagine how much more powerful a progressive movement would be if it considered challenging global capitalism on the grounds that it stands in conflict with the developing evolutionary consciousness of the universe and God.


Source Citation: Lerner, Michael. 2010. A Spiritual Approach to Evolution. Tikkun 25(6): 33

Posted in 2010, Articles, Editorials & Actions, Political Vision and Spiritual Wisdom, Rethinking Religion, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Middle East Peace Negotiations?

Photo SARAH JEHAN (SARAHJEHAN.COM)
Photo SARAH JEHAN (SARAHJEHAN.COM)


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Middle East Peace Negotiations?

by Michael Lerner

Until the populations of Israel and Palestine really want peace, the peace negotiations will be nothing but a slightly sad sideshow, unless the Obama administration, momentarily freed from its own electoral concerns, is prepared to put forward a substantive peace plan of its own.

It used to be that the elites in both societies would tell you that once they worked out a deal, their relatively excitable populations would embrace it. Perhaps. But what has become clear in recent years is that neither side has sufficient stability based on popular support to actually make the compromises necessary to negotiate a peace agreement with terms that could actually work.

So, instead of playing to each side's elites, those who seek peace must now launch a broad educational campaign to reach ordinary citizens (if necessary, over the heads of those elites) with a message that is convincing -- a message that says, here are the terms of a fair peace agreement and here is why we believe that if each side makes the necessary compromises, it will work to meet your best interests.

Some say this is a hard case to make. They point out that Israelis seem to be doing quite well at the moment from a material standpoint and have little interest in what goes on in the West Bank and Gaza. They argue this situation is unlikely to change so long as the restraint of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, the partial effectiveness of intrusive searches at checkpoints and the careful patrolling of the Israeli-constructed Wall, impressive intelligence based on willing (and less than willing) collaborators, and newer protection technologies collectively manage to minimize the number of terrorist attacks in Israel. We are glad for the reduction of terror, but not for the resulting complacency and willingness of many Israelis to live with the torture and oppression that their army inflicts on the subjugated Palestinian populations of the West Bank and the open-air prison that is Gaza.

The United States and other countries committed to a peaceful solution should present a detailed plan for what a final agreement must encompass to the people of the Middle East and the United States. Such a plan must on the one hand take into account the tremendous economic, political, and military inequality between the two parties, as well as recognize the historical injustice done to the Palestinian people. On the other hand, it must speak to the great pain that both parties have suffered. It is this pain from the past that leads them each to interpret everything through a framework based on memories of being betrayed, oppressed, and denied their fundamental humanity. Lasting peace will require steps toward healing that pain and trauma, so that each party can approach the other with a spirit of generosity and openheartedness, rather than needing to insist that since their pain has "really been greater than the pain of the other side," their needs (for justice, security, and respect) trump the needs of the other side.

We who live outside Israel/Palestine can play a role, partly by challenging the discourse of "blaming the other" that gets strengthened by the more extreme partisans in both camps, but more importantly by insisting that our political leaders present to both sides a vision of a future that will appeal to the people of the region and give them reason to push their leaders to make the necessary compromises. Obviously, the people of the region will make the final decisions, but having a proposal that seems comprehensive and fair coming from the greatest economic, military, and political powers of the world will strengthen the part of each Israeli and Palestinian who wants to believe in the possibility of a conclusion to this struggle based on peace, justice, and recognition of the dignity and fundamental humanity of both sides.

Keeping that in mind, yet wanting to propose something that our spiritually and psychologically tone-deaf politicians might at least understand, I offer the following advice for what a peace plan proposed to both sides by the United States could involve. Use it also when assessing future negotiations, because proposals that do not address the issues below are unlikely to meet the approval of even the most fair-minded and balanced people on both sides of this conflict.

1. A peace treaty that recognizes the State of Israel and the State of Palestine and defines Palestine's borders to include almost all of pre-1967 West Bank and Gaza, with small exchanges of land mutually agreed upon and roughly equivalent in value and historic and/or military significance to each side. The peace plan must also entail a corresponding treaty between Israel and all Arab states -- approved with full diplomatic and economic cooperation among these parties -- along borderlines that existed in the pre-1967 period. And it should include a twenty-to-thirty-year plan for moving toward a Middle Eastern common market and the eventual establishment of a political union along the lines of the European Union.

2. Jerusalem will be the capital of both Israel and Palestine and will be governed by an elected council in West Jerusalem and a separate elected council in East Jerusalem. The Old City will become an international city whose sovereignty will be implemented by an international council that guarantees equal access to all holy sites -- a council whose taxes will be shared equally by the city councils of East and West Jerusalem.

3. Immediate and unconditional freedom will be accorded all prisoners in Israel and Palestine whose arrests have been connected in some way with the Occupation and resistance to the Occupation.

4. An international force to separate and protect each side from the extremists of the other side who will inevitably seek to disrupt the peace agreement. And the creation of a joint peace police -- composed of an equal number of Palestinians and Israelis, at both personnel and command levels -- that will work with the international force to combat violence and to implement point number six below.

5. Reparations for Palestinian refugees and their descendents at a sufficient level to bring Palestinians within a ten-year period to an economic well-being equivalent to that enjoyed by those with a median Israeli-level income. The same level of reparations must also be made available to all Jews who fled Arab lands between 1948 and 1977. An international fund should be set up immediately to hold in escrow the monies needed to ensure that these reparations are in place once the peace plan is agreed upon.

6. Creation of a truth and reconciliation process modeled on the South African version but shaped to the specificity of these two cultures. Plus: an international peace committee appointed by representatives of the three major religious communities of the area to develop and implement teaching of a. nonviolence and non-violent communication, b. empathy and forgiveness, and c. a sympathetic point of view of the history of the "other side" mandated in every grade from sixth grade through high school. The committee should moreover ensure the elimination of all teaching of hatred against the other side or teaching against the implementation of this treaty in any public, private, or religious educational institutions, media, or public meetings. Such teachings would become an automatic crime punishable in an international court set up for this purpose.

7. An agreement from Palestine to allow all Jews living in the West Bank to remain there as law-abiding citizens of the new Palestinian state as long as they give up their Israeli citizenship and abide by decisions of the Palestinian courts. A fund should be created to help West Bank settlers move back to Israel if they wish to remain Israeli citizens and to help Palestinians move to Palestine if they wish to be citizens of the new Palestinian state. In exchange for Palestine agreeing to allow Israelis to stay in the West Bank as citizens of the Palestinian state, Israel must agree to let 20,000 Palestinian refugees return each year for the next thirty years to the pre-1967 borders of Israel and provide them with housing. (This number -- 20,000 -- is small enough to not change the demographic balance, yet large enough to show that Israel cares about Palestinian refugees and recognizes that they have been wronged.) Each state must acknowledge the right of the other to give preferential treatment in immigration to members of its leading ethnic group (Jews in Israel, Palestinians in Palestine).

8. Agreement by the leaders of all relevant parties to talk in a language of peace and openhearted reconciliation, and to reject the notion that the other side cannot be trusted. The agreement has the greatest likelihood of working if it is embraced in full and pushed for enthusiastically by the leaders of all relevant parties, as well as endorsed by a majority vote of the populations of each country that wishes to be a party to this agreement.

Our task in Tikkun and in the Network of Spiritual Progressives is to devise strategies to get our own Western countries to publicly articulate this vision, and to get President Obama to use his full energies and skills to convince the American public, the Israeli public, and the Palestinian public that this agreement and nothing less will provide greater security and well-being to the people of the United States, Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East more broadly.

All the other stuff happening in the "negotiations" should be viewed as political theater. At the moment the main issue is who is going to be blamed for getting the process to fail, with people on each side maneuvering to prevent the blame from falling on themselves. But the plan we present seeks a very different spirit -- a spirit of hopefulness that we now have a concrete plan that would work if implemented and should be adopted by anyone serious about lasting peace. All the rest is commentary, fluff, and political self-interest and has little to do with creating peace.

In the final analysis, we at Tikkun believe that peace can only come through a fundamental transformation of consciousness, so that the people on each side begin to abandon the worldview that teaches that their own security depends on dominating the other side, construed as the "evil other." Only an openhearted reconciliation based on faith that the other side will be able to see its former enemies as real human beings sharing similar needs for peace, security, dignity, and recognition as created in the image of God will produce lasting peace. The implementation of these formal proposals would not necessarily be sufficient to create that change of heart. Yet the step of envisioning this process may itself contribute to a thawing of the icy rejection of "the other" -- a thawing that is the precondition for developing the consciousness that is needed. For that reason, articulating this vision may itself be a step toward its achievement.



Source Citation: Lerner, Michael. 2010. Middle East Peace Negotiations? Tikkun 25(6): 9

Posted in 2010, Editorials & Actions, Israel/Palestine, Political Vision and Spiritual Wisdom, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

America to Washington: “We Have a Problem”

Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Who can forget the low-key, understated report from Jim Lovell that something was amiss as Apollo 13 circled the moon -- "Houston, we have a problem"? Lovell's problem was serious, the likelihood of a solution remote, and the lives of the astronauts saved only through messy, jury-rigged solutions and the personal bravery of key players.

Recent election cycles remind me of Jim Lovell's report from Apollo 13. Washington is mired in bitter personal partisan battles. Republicans are, by most estimates, likely to improve their position in both houses of Congress with a "repeal and replace" argument that Washington is "out of control" and must be stopped a mere two years after the electorate voted for "change."

The likelihood of a solution to this hyper-partisanship seems remote in the short term. Fueled by a national round-the-clock media/blogosphere and fluid "independent" campaign financing moving from race to race, Republican and Democratic candidates are forced to focus on fundraising from their respective base voters and getting them out to vote -- even as more Americans self-identify as independents. The two-party system seems itself to be lurching out of control and unable to respond thoughtfully to the pragmatic, problem-solving center of the political spectrum.

Progressives argue that the current partisan bitterness was the product of an "Obama as president" who did not deliver on the inspirational promise of "Obama as candidate." Conservatives will argue that this bitterness is the product of Democratic leadership ramming an Obama agenda down their throat without adequate consultation.

Both views are, in my opinion, incorrect. There is something more deeply wrong with our current political system. Obama has delivered exactly what he promised during the 2008 election campaign -- a stimulus program and health care, education, and financial reform. What he did not deliver, and could not be expected to deliver, was a speedy economic recovery to the economy timed to the election cycle. The Republicans argue that the Democratic stimulus failed to keep the unemployment rate at a promised 8 percent and thus that the nearly $1 trillion stimulus was Democratic overspending that is adding to an already alarming budget deficit.

Are the Republicans countering with a more sensible economic plan? No. They have made a calculated political judgment that frustrated, out-of-work voters want to "stop" further ineffective, debt-creating meddling in the economy and that just saying no will advance their political position. And the Republican political strategy appears to be working.

This strategy mirrors the strategy employed by the Democrats after the election in 2004 when then-President George W. Bush proposed to stabilize the looming insolvency of the Social Security system by allowing beneficiaries to allocate a small percentage of their Social Security savings in personal accounts that could be invested in the stock market. Democrats argued that President Bush was "privatizing" Social Security and putting pensioners at risk of losing their life savings. So, while Bush's proposal was a positive and relatively modest reform, the Democratic strategy to refuse to negotiate any Social Security reform was a calculated political judgment that voters wanted to "stop" any meddling with Social Security. The Democrats' strategy worked: they took back the Congress in 2006 and extended their majority in 2008.

Net, each party has calculated that its political interests are best served by stopping the initiatives of the other party and then accusing that party of incompetence or ineffectiveness.

Is there no room in Washington for the pragmatic, problem-solving, bipartisan centrists?

Most sustained, progressive transformations in American policy have been bipartisan -- the 1960s Civil Rights Acts were drafted in Republican Senator Everett Dirksen's office and received support from both parties. The World Wars and the Cold War of the twentieth century were waged in the environment of a bipartisan foreign policy. Health care reforms -- Medicare, Medicaid, and the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit -- were adopted by significant congressional majorities.

If the moderate middle of the political spectrum is dying or dead, and if each party gains by stopping or reversing the policies of the other party, this country is in for a revolving "repeal and replace" mentality every four to six years. The Congress will simply become a game of who can best throw sand in the gears of the governing party's work.

Maybe America will be better served by divided government that puts both parties in charge. Then, America can hopefully look to the personal political bravery of centrists from both parties to work out the messy bipartisan compromise that will produce a sustainable policy on the critical issues facing the country.    

Posted in 2010, Articles, Politics_&_Society, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Will Obama Stop Betraying His Progressive Base?

Photo MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.
Photo MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Sometime in mid-September 2010, President Obama suddenly discovered that twenty months of governing by capitulation to the very mainstream ideas he campaigned against in 2008 was a losing strategy. But instead of acknowledging his errors, he acted as though his liberal and progressive base were betraying him.

Like most progressive activists who supported Barack Obama's campaign, I understood that a president is limited in what she or he can accomplish in reducing the power of America's economic and political elites. But what a president can do is challenge the ideas of the powerful and rally those who have become aware both that the system is destructive to the future of the planet and that there is an alternative -- a possibility of constructing lives with a sense of meaning beyond the accumulation of money and things.

In a frantic activity before the November 2010 midterm election, President Obama traveled the country seeking to rebuild the enthusiasm he generated in 2008, but he seemed clueless as to why it was not there. The Democrats in Congress who followed his lead seemed similarly clueless: they tried to blame our lack of enthusiasm on their inability to pass the legislation that we (their political base) wanted -- a desire that they dismissed as unreasonable. Even a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president could not, they suggested, overcome the resistance of the Republican Party and the powerful institutional constraints that have been built up over many decades. Then they reminded us that a Republican Congress would certainly make things worse.

The reason progressives are upset with Obama and the Dems is not that we held a naive belief about how much he or the Democratic Congress could accomplish, given the fact that the Democratic majority in Congress was in fact filled with corporate-oriented "centrists." We knew the limitations of this reality -- a reality that was created by Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi, whose supposedly brilliant strategy in 2006 of backing the most conservative possible candidates in Democratic primaries in "swing districts" worked in the sense of giving the Democrats formal control of the House. Emanuel and Pelosi were more interested in securing political power than in changing the direction of the country. Not trusting the growing anti-war sentiment in 2006, they supported candidates who were ideologically pro-business and pro-war, constructing a Democratic majority in Congress that would back neither anti-war efforts nor the pro-working-and-middle-class measures that Democrats had promised.

By late 2007, liberals and progressives were deeply disturbed that, after the Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006, Congress continued to fund the war in Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition. So when Obama entered the primaries, he created his base of support in part by fostering the impression that he would challenge the warmakers and in part by speaking against the pro-corporate and pro-Wall Street ethos of the Bush administration. His famous speech on racism, in which he distinguished himself from his lefty preacher in Chicago, was understood by most progressives to mean he'd champion the interests of Blacks but also of whites, and he'd do that by avoiding the destructive "political correctness" rhetoric that has isolated so many progressives in the past thirty years, while still maintaining a progressive core to his policies. So when he challenged the selfishness and materialism on Wall Street and explicitly raised everyone's hopes by making "change" the theme of his campaign, progressives reasonably felt we had a candidate who would be willing to speak truth to power.

So what happened? First, he appointed Emanuel as his Chief of Staff and surrounded himself with a White House crew that lacked representatives from the social change movements that brought him electoral success (and this remains true even with the departure of Emanuel and Summers). Then came the sad reversals of direction: He bailed out Wall Street but gave almost nothing to the millions of unemployed or to those losing their homes to avaricious financial lenders. He escalated the war in Afghanistan and left 50,000 troops as "advisers" in Iraq, publicly justifying his reliance on preemptive military force upon receiving an ill-conceived Nobel Peace Prize. He refused to push for a public option for health care and instead supported a plan that forces tens of millions of people to buy health insurance without putting any restraints on insurance companies' continuing escalations of the amount we have to pay. Moreover he agreed to oppose methods to reduce the costs of prescription drugs in return for a promise to slightly reduce the level of drug profits by big pharma. Indeed, the list of reversals seems unending: he pursued repression against illegal immigrants; allowed continued drilling in the oceans for oil even after the Gulf of Mexico disaster and substituted the empty promise of "cap and trade" for the tax on carbons that is the only plausible way to reduce carbon emissions; refused to punish those in the U.S. intelligence community who engaged in torture; invoked a "state secrets" rationale to allow U.S. executive branch leaders to unilaterally assassinate any American citizen they want without redress or due process (the al-Aulaqi case), while giving free rein to private security companies like Blackwater to kill for hire; escalated the use of drones that often kill more civilians than suspected terrorists; and appointed friends of the worst big agricultural firms to run his Department of Agriculture. The list goes on.

Many progressives will vote or have already (through absentee ballots) voted Democratic in November, despite all this. But don't expect liberals and progressives to be able to rally others when the best they can say is that the Democrats and their national leader are less bad than the plausible alternatives. Many others, feeling humiliated at allowing themselves to believe in the hope Obama elicited, find themselves either totally uninterested in politics or wishing to strike back at the Democrats for making fools of those who trusted. Politics is partly about the alternation between hope and despair. Obama's twenty-month abandonment of the ideals that enthused us in 2008 -- combined with the failure of his Wall Street-oriented economic policies and his capitulation to the military-industrial complex -- has generated more despair than hope, and blaming his base for that is stupid and self-destructive. The Democratic Party strategists console themselves by looking at poll data that tells them that most liberals and progressives will vote for the Dems in any case, so their attention has to be on what they conceive to be the concerns of "centrists" and young people who are disaffected. What the poll data doesn't reveal is what everyone who worked in 2008 understands: that it was the mass enthusiasm of progressives that persuaded centrists to overcome their skepticism and students to overcome their political passivity, allowing themselves to believe that a change-oriented president could make a huge difference. Demographically, the progressives may not be so important, but in terms of the psychodynamics of an election, they are often crucial. Obama and the Democrats remain clueless.

In October 2010, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman suggested a new third party for the "radical center." A third party, yes, but another party with centrist politics will spew toothless high-mindedness of the Tom Friedman variety, which will only further weaken the Democrats, without coming close to speaking to what really bothers most of those disaffected from the two establishment parties. What is actually needed is a third party that combines the kind of vision articulated in the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA) to the U.S. Constitution, the policy directions of our Spiritual Covenant with America, the foreign policy direction shown in the Global Marshall Plan, and the love, compassion, generosity, and non-religiophobic discourse we've sought to develop in Tikkun. Lacking such a party, many progressives will find no other option for themselves but to grudgingly support the Democratic Party. Obama may be able to slip into office a second time in 2012 if the Republicans nominate one of their more horrendous leaders, but until the Democrats and Obama really atone for the directions they've taken, and embrace a spiritual progressive worldview, they are unintentionally but powerfully helping to build the kind of resentment and humiliation that has in the past become the psychological underpinning for the emergence of powerful fascistic movements from the right.

Posted in 2010, Articles, Editorials & Actions, Political Vision and Spiritual Wisdom, Politics_&_Society, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010, Z Archive | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

America to Washington: “We Have a Problem”

Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Who can forget the low-key, understated report from Jim Lovell that something was amiss as Apollo 13 circled the moon -- "Houston, we have a problem"? Lovell's problem was serious, the likelihood of a solution remote, and the lives of the astronauts saved only through messy, jury-rigged solutions and the personal bravery of key players.

Recent election cycles remind me of Jim Lovell's report from Apollo 13. Washington is mired in bitter personal partisan battles. Republicans are, by most estimates, likely to improve their position in both houses of Congress with a "repeal and replace" argument that Washington is "out of control" and must be stopped a mere two years after the electorate voted for "change."

The likelihood of a solution to this hyper-partisanship seems remote in the short term. Fueled by a national round-the-clock media/blogosphere and fluid "independent" campaign financing moving from race to race, Republican and Democratic candidates are forced to focus on fundraising from their respective base voters and getting them out to vote -- even as more Americans self-identify as independents. The two-party system seems itself to be lurching out of control and unable to respond thoughtfully to the pragmatic, problem-solving center of the political spectrum.

Progressives argue that the current partisan bitterness was the product of an "Obama as president" who did not deliver on the inspirational promise of "Obama as candidate." Conservatives will argue that this bitterness is the product of Democratic leadership ramming an Obama agenda down their throat without adequate consultation.

Both views are, in my opinion, incorrect. There is something more deeply wrong with our current political system. Obama has delivered exactly what he promised during the 2008 election campaign -- a stimulus program and health care, education, and financial reform. What he did not deliver, and could not be expected to deliver, was a speedy economic recovery to the economy timed to the election cycle. The Republicans argue that the Democratic stimulus failed to keep the unemployment rate at a promised 8 percent and thus that the nearly $1 trillion stimulus was Democratic overspending that is adding to an already alarming budget deficit.

Are the Republicans countering with a more sensible economic plan? No. They have made a calculated political judgment that frustrated, out-of-work voters want to "stop" further ineffective, debt-creating meddling in the economy and that just saying no will advance their political position. And the Republican political strategy appears to be working.

This strategy mirrors the strategy employed by the Democrats after the election in 2004 when then-President George W. Bush proposed to stabilize the looming insolvency of the Social Security system by allowing beneficiaries to allocate a small percentage of their Social Security savings in personal accounts that could be invested in the stock market. Democrats argued that President Bush was "privatizing" Social Security and putting pensioners at risk of losing their life savings. So, while Bush's proposal was a positive and relatively modest reform, the Democratic strategy to refuse to negotiate any Social Security reform was a calculated political judgment that voters wanted to "stop" any meddling with Social Security. The Democrats' strategy worked: they took back the Congress in 2006 and extended their majority in 2008.

Net, each party has calculated that its political interests are best served by stopping the initiatives of the other party and then accusing that party of incompetence or ineffectiveness.

Is there no room in Washington for the pragmatic, problem-solving, bipartisan centrists?

Most sustained, progressive transformations in American policy have been bipartisan -- the 1960s Civil Rights Acts were drafted in Republican Senator Everett Dirksen's office and received support from both parties. The World Wars and the Cold War of the twentieth century were waged in the environment of a bipartisan foreign policy. Health care reforms -- Medicare, Medicaid, and the Medicare Prescription Drug benefit -- were adopted by significant congressional majorities.

If the moderate middle of the political spectrum is dying or dead, and if each party gains by stopping or reversing the policies of the other party, this country is in for a revolving "repeal and replace" mentality every four to six years. The Congress will simply become a game of who can best throw sand in the gears of the governing party's work.

Maybe America will be better served by divided government that puts both parties in charge. Then, America can hopefully look to the personal political bravery of centrists from both parties to work out the messy bipartisan compromise that will produce a sustainable policy on the critical issues facing the country.    

Posted in 2010, Vol 25.6 NovDec 2010 | Leave a comment

Letters to the Editor: November 2010

Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

A NOTE ON LETTERS TO THE EDITOR:

We welcome your responses to our articles. Send your letters to the editor to Letters@Tikkun.org. Please remember, however, not to attribute to Tikkun views other than those expressed in our editorials. We email, post, and print many articles with which we have strong disagreements, because that is what makes Tikkun a location for a true diversity of ideas. Tikkun reserves the right to edit your letters to fit available space in the magazine.

KUCINICH AND THE ESRA

In the September/October issue of Tikkun magazine, Dennis Kucinich proposes an Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution (in "ESRA: An Opportunity to Reshape the World"). Such an amendment has as much chance as the proverbial snowball in hell. And even if passed, it wouldn't timely address the overwhelming problem of global heating. Maybe Kucinich is trying to compete with David Cobb and Move to Amend; but both divert attention from addressing global heating in the next six years, which is the time that Jim Hansen and others say we have to avoid climate hell.

Juvenal, a Roman poet, said luxury is "more ruthless than war" and violence. His words are particularly relevant today, when carbon dioxide is around the world in hours and in the atmosphere for up to a thousand years. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions from American big houses, big vehicles, and other luxuries are the largest threat to the Global Atmospheric Commons and have already led to floods (Pakistan), drought, crop failure, water wars (Kenya), genocide (Darfur: "when the rains stopped, the genocide began"), and will lead to climate hell, if not abated.

Roland James

Seguin, TX 

SAVING THE WORLD FROM CORPORATE GREED

I found a troubling amount of psychological denial in the September/October issue of Tikkun, starting with the cover article title, "Saving the World from Corporate Greed." That title emerges from a state of what we wish for, rather than anything we can realistically hope to accomplish. It averts the eyes from the immensity of the trouble we face.

After attending the San Francisco NSP conference, I came away convinced that the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution (ESRA) was a giant distraction. A five-page ESRA is even more irrelevant.

I was intrigued by the richness of the question "Do the Dems Deserve to Lose?" In my mind, the Dems have made their deeply flawed choices and will reap the consequences. It's not up to progressives to save them -- we can't. 

However, the editorial never addressed the cover's question. Instead, Rabbi Lerner wrote about the Obama of his dreams. He chose to not deal with the Obama who actually lives in the White House. In the ugly times we are in, that just doesn't cut it. 

I constantly grieve over how the world is not the way I would like it to be. It seems to me that thoughtful people have a responsibility to see the world as it is, no matter how painful that is. I believe this is the path to truth, love, and peace.

David Schonbrunn

San Rafael, CA

Editor responds:

Both Mr. Schonbrunn and Mr. James have trouble imagining how the world can be fundamentally changed. In this, they resemble those Black pastors who warned Martin Luther King Jr. to stop trying to challenge segregation, or the women who cautioned second-wave feminists about challenging patriarchy, or the homosexuals who were disturbed when gay activists sought to bring the question of homophobia into public awareness. We at Tikkun do not have any evidence that the emphasis we place on the Spiritual Covenant with America, the Global Marshall Plan, and the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (ESRA) will actually switch the power relations in our society (though they would if passed). What these campaigns may succeed in doing is to reframe U.S. public political discourse in a way that will change consciousness by creating a concrete vision of what progressives are for, not just what they are against.

We do not see any reason why a focus on this campaign should detract attention from any strategy Mr. James has that would, in the meantime, end global warming, and our NSP/Tikkun communities will do everything we can to support any plausible strategy that will reduce global warming. Our guess, however, is that corporate control over the electoral process (and over the resulting Congress and administration) will not be significantly reined in until there is a comprehensive constitutional amendment of the sort that ESRA proposes. The unrestricted use of corporate incentives to maximize companies' profits at the expense of the environment will also continue unchecked until we pass a comprehensive amendment. The suggestion from Mr. Schonbrunn that we are not looking at the world realistically ("as it is") seems to miss our point that the world as it is can be changed, and that one significant way to build the movement for such changes is to move beyond a narrow focus on "what's wrong" and put forward visionary ideas about how the world could look if people were to unite and struggle for that new way of arranging our world.

BEYOND GOVERNMENT

Dr. Phil Wolfson's article, "Cuba Sí," has stirred me. What troubles me most is how individuals and the populace can become and remain stagnant due to their broken governments for fifty years, one hundred years, or more. I am truly sorry for America's role in Cuba's sorrows, and I support the Spiritual Progressives' Global Marshall Plan as I dream of America as a cooperative ally rather than a dominant enforcer. I worry for my own country in the grips of corporate power and the rapidly growing inequality, and feel helpless as a citizen as I observe our government muddling through bureaucracy yet keeping things status quo. I wonder if Dr. Wolfson feels that if American citizens got together and gathered seeds and plants from our own gardens and cooperative seed groups, and if we gathered our used computers, of which we have plenty in our throw-away society, and sent them to Cuba, that that would help. What I am hoping for is a seed of people helping people to go beyond the limitations of what governments can achieve to help their citizens and create peace in the world.

Suzanne Sherman

Petaluma, CA

HAMAS AND PALESTINE

It could be that "the idea of Hamas is about liberation, an end to Occupation, and independence," as Jeremy Ben-Ami says in his article "The New Zionist Imperative is to Tell Israel the Truth." But the Arab hostility existed long before the IDF changed the Green Line in 1967, already then a highly disputed border between Israel and the surrounding Arab states. So for that matter a peace treaty and good intentions between Israelis and Arabs should long ago have been established. So, sorry Ben-Ami, Hamas and Hezbollah and Abu Mazen drive after another road map. That road map is the whole of the former Palestine, and "Israel" isn't printed on that map.

Kiel Hesselmann

Nykobing, Denmark

Jeremy Ben-Ami responds:

I agree wholeheartedly that Arab hostility to Israel preceded 1967. I would further agree that there will be those in the Arab world and far beyond who will continue to oppose the very existence of Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, even if there is a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The question is which future is better for Israel and the Jewish people -- one with a negotiated two-state solution or one without. 

The answer to my mind is unequivocal. The surest route to a map without a state of Israel is to fail to achieve a lasting and comprehensive peace. Saddest of all would be to end up on that route because Israel couldn't stop itself from building a few more structures over the Green Line for a matter of months while it negotiates a permanent border.

GAY SPIRITUALITY

Jay Michaelson is a friend and colleague. I agree with the central points of his article (in the July/August "Queer Spirituality and Politics" issue of Tikkun): the gay rights struggle is based in virtue and religious values, and good people should support this struggle out of compassion and loving kindness. And I want to add that the function of "gay spirituality" in gay people's lives is to discover the meaning of one's homosexuality as a stepping-stone in one's spiritual path. Being gay gives people a different perspective on the world. We have a different sense of what life is for, and how to participate and contribute. How we relate to religion and religious institutions is certainly part of the personal developmental process, but there's so much more to the gay spiritual life than what "straight people" think about homosexuality. What matters to us is how we think about homosexuality and how we can find in our experience of being gay clues to the experience of "God."

Toby Johnson

Austin, Texas

HINDU SPIRITUALITY

Tikkun is a spiritual magazine, but Ruth Vanita's article "Same-Sex Weddings, Hindu Traditions, and Modern India" (July/August 2010) had references to Hindu rituals but no discussion of the deeper spiritual practices of meditation and yoga. As such, the article gives a very unbalanced view of Hindu spirituality. An article that mentions only the Kama Sutra but no other Hindu scriptures does a disservice to the reader and sincere spiritual seekers.

The principles of ayurveda (science of life) and yoga hold that cultivating the spiritual energy, known in Sanskrit as prana, is central to transforming one's mind and body in preparation for deeper spirituality and final liberation from the cycle of rebirth. But it also holds that the use and overuse of the five senses are the primary manner in which prana is dissipated, wasted, and therefore not available to power the spiritual pursuit. Sex in any form, whether heterosexual or homosexual, results in a large loss of prana. This is the underlying reason for the practice of austerity in the yoga tradition, and most probably, in many other religious and spiritual traditions. It is the practice of gradually and lovingly loosening the ties that bind, and giving up "small" experiences of bliss, in order to achieve the highest Bliss, direct knowledge and communion with God, also known by the Sanskrit word samadhi. These principles are stated emphatically through all of the Hindu and Yoga scriptures such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads, and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

The article also states that an individual is reborn in order to work through attachments from previous births and move toward freedom from attachment. This is true; however, indulging in an attachment, also known as a samskara, only serves to strengthen the attachment, making it all the more "irresistible." I would ask the author and the reader to consider that perhaps the reason for these so-called "irresistible" impulses is repeated indulgence in previous lives and the present life. I do agree with the author in that forcible suppression of attachments is not healthy, but rather, as stated earlier, working through an attachment is a process of gradually and lovingly letting go of it, with the knowledge that a higher purpose and goal is being served.

Greg Polanchyck

Wilmington, DE

Ruth Vanita responds:
Tikkun asked me to sum up my decades-long work on same-sex love and marriage in a limited word-count. In my book Love's Rite: Same-Sex Marriage in India and the West, I discuss two parallel strands in Hindu life -- that of asceticism, which takes a negative view of desire, as outlined by Polanchyck, and that of everyday practice, which honors desire as one of the four goals of life, and worships Kama, God of love, as a beautiful young male God. If many Hindu texts advocate giving up desire, many other equally popular Hindu texts hold up ideals of loving marriage and friendship, with marriage being seen as a kind of friendship and friendship as a kind of marriage. Lord Shiva is an ascetic, but also a loving husband to Parvati, with whom he enjoys erotic bliss (which, by the way, does not produce children).

The ascetic tradition is balanced by a strong this-worldly tradition in Hinduism. Strict nonindulgence of all desire would rapidly lead to the dissolution of relationships, the family, society, and ultimately the species. Whether such dissolution is a "higher purpose and goal" is open to debate; I suspect that most ordinary Hindus in India do not incline toward this goal.

SAINTS PERPETUA AND FELICITAS

I am an Orthodox Christian. I pray standing before an Icon of Saint Perpetua and Saint Felicitas. I love them, together with the other Holy Martyrs who suffered together with them, Saints Revocatus, Saturus, and Saturninus. And when I first saw them on the cover of your magazine, my first instinct was to Cross myself and kiss the cover. Then I read the words printed on the cover.

I am sad you desecrated their Holy Icon by using it to promote the evil of homosexual behavior. It is hard for me to believe you would slander these two women like you did. Both St. Perpetua and St. Felicitas were married women, the former a mother. The latter was eight months pregnant at the time of her arrest and gave birth two days before she was killed in the amphitheater.

The Icon you desecrated was not, as you implied by the words you printed on the cover, a depiction of a homosexual embrace. Rather it shows that last act of the women, a liturgical act all Orthodox Christians are familiar with, the Kiss of Peace. Yet now, all who are uneducated who see the cover of your magazine will think these two were homosexuals. Did they not suffer enough from the torturers and the wild animals that were set on them before their execution? How dastardly of you.

But I am not writing to you to express outrage. Instead, I am extending an invitation. God forgives slanderers. He even forgives those who cause others to fall by saying what is wrong is right. If you repent, God will have mercy on you.

Matt Karnes

San Jose, CA

David Belden Responds:

Matt, I do understand that the cover is offensive to you, and I am sad that it has caused you pain. But I also have an invitation to you, to consider that this holy kiss of peace between two married women facing death for their faith could also evoke the holiness of two lovers, whose love in major parts of the Christian tradition has been denied and indeed killed. The articles in the magazine argue that there is holiness in love, that God is love, and that includes homosexual love. We often use images of one thing to describe another. At my own wedding, the minister told the story of Naomi and Ruth, mother and daughter-in-law, who said she would go wherever Naomi went: for my wife, an American, and myself, an Englishman who had left everything to come live with her, this was a moving story. We felt it was relevant to us. In retrospect, I think it would have been helpful for us to explain our use of the image and our view that love of God, love of friends, love of lovers, love of family are all holy -- as for example the love of David for Jonathan was holy whether or not they ever had sex together; but at the same time I doubt that would have made any difference to those like yourself who feel that homosexual love is "evil," as you put it. There is so much pain in this world, so much hurtful behavior of one to another, I am sad and devastated that we would make up a story that certain kinds of love are evil, despite their being indistinguishable in almost every respect from kinds of love we call holy: doesn't it just add to the pain of the world rather than enabling us to work together to end the scourges of cruelty, greed, war, starvation, thirst, imprisonment, and loneliness?

"ASSIMILATIONIST" POLITICS

I was deeply disturbed by some of the writing in the Queer Spirituality & Politics section of the July/August issue. Two of the writers, in articulating their visions of Queer presence in our culture, used demeaning terminology to describe those whose struggles differ from their own. In one of the pieces, Lt. Dan Choi is called an "assimilationist." In another, those in the movement to legalize gay marriage are lumped in with legitimizing the prison-industrial complex! This kind of divisiveness does nothing to further our liberation; in fact all it does is point out how far we are from the personal liberation we much each achieve before societal liberation will be possible.

My rabbi teaches that "othering," demeaning, or in any way lessening the intrinsic value of another person is totally at odds with the tenets of Judaism. Those who study the Torah and Talmud quickly learn that the Jewish path allows for and encourages a multiplicity of opinion on any given subject. Our own Wisdom Masters often disagree with each other about what is the correct response to any given challenge.

It is interesting that Alana Price identifies Lt. Choi as an assimilationist, for he is anything but. That terminology has historically been used to define someone who keeps their queer identity hidden, in order to benefit from perceived heterosexuality, and continued personal gain of power and/or privilege. In coming out as a gay man, Lt. Choi risked imprisonment and losing his position, as well as the ability to further his chosen career.

On a more personal level, I was dismayed by the way those of us who wish to be married were dismissed as having an unworthy goal. My partner and I celebrated our kiddushin with the holy community of Beyt Tikkun, blessed by Rabbi Michael Lerner and his wife Rabbi Debora Kohn-Lerner. It was a day of celebration of family and community, of love and triumph over a societal message that says we are not deserving of participation in the rituals and blessings bestowed upon others simply by virtue of their sexuality.       

Queer Liberation has never been narrowly defined. It encompasses the views of many different people from all walks of life. I may not wish to participate in the way Wendy Somerson is led to express her vision for change, but I would never demean her for doing what she believes will achieve her goals. I would not want to serve in the military, but unlike Alana Price, I respect and affirm the rights of Queer people to do so openly and without shame. We are each responsible to live our highest vision of the life we have been given, how we identify and articulate that vision is between ourselves and G-d.

In this month of Elul, when we are instructed to hear the Shofar blown everyday, may we recognize that even though we may hear it differently, that call to prayer resonates in each of our hearts.

DJ Simone

Oakland, CA

Alana Price responds:

DJ Simone rightly points out that Queer Liberation has never been narrowly defined, and goes on to express a frustration that I in fact share -- a frustration at activist approaches that define what is worthwhile in a purist and total way and then tear apart activist communities by personally and divisively demeaning individuals who opt to work on other struggles. I am surprised and sad to learn that Simone experienced my article as divisive and personally demeaning in this way.

I want to believe it is possible to engage in earnest, constructive reflection within the LGBT activist community as a whole about the social effects of our collective activist decisions about where to direct our resources, organizational time, and energy both historically and in the present. Such reflection is not about judging each other's life choices or demeaning each other -- it's about working as a community to dream big about what sort of change is possible and how we can orient our activism so that it has a chance of effecting larger structural changes to our society and so that it is resonates with the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our community.

Never in my article do I describe an individual person as "an assimilationist," as Simone suggests, and I definitely did not intend it as a derogatory slander against individuals who choose to marry or join the military. Rather, I used assimilation as an analytic term to describe the strategic aims of certain organizing approaches. Some activist goals are aimed at making it possible for LGBT people to be assimilated or absorbed into our society's current institutions as they currently exist, whereas other goals are aimed at radically transforming the shape of our society and its institutions. By saying "the goal of the action fits neatly within the conservative, assimilationist aims articulated by mainstream LGBT lobby groups" I certainly wasn't suggesting that Lt. Choi was trying to pass as straight or that he was "selling out" in some way in order personally to hide his identity: I was arguing precisely the opposite -- that it was the forcefulness and riskiness of Choi's action that belied the more limited nature of his political aim.

I see the struggle against "don't ask, don't tell" and the struggle for marriage equality not as "shameful," but rather as ones that are worthwhile but limited. I've heard that some LGBT activist groups these days are finding that unless they work on these two headline issues, they're having trouble getting funding. So it seems like an important moment to reflect and think about the strengths and limitations of these particular struggles. Who can they help? Who can't they help? For whom are such struggles irrelevant?

Simone's letter made me reflect more on the history of the term "assimilation" and I see how there are connotations that conjure the idea of in-groups/out-groups and can be hurtful in that way, perhaps making it a term we should all use with more care. In my life I have experienced this term not primarily as a slur against closeted gay people but rather as a term -- still fraught in various ways -- used to describe the multivalent process of immigrants becoming absorbed in the mainstream society instead of demanding that the structures of mainstream society somehow expand or change radically to incorporate the insights of their culture and experience. My own family history is one of immigrants assimilating into U.S. society; assimilation was my grandparents' primary goal -- an urgent one necessary to ensure their well-being and safety ... but it was also a limited goal whose fulfillment benefited our family without fundamentally transforming the shape of society.

As the actual text of my article should make clear, I see all moves toward greater institutional equality as positive -- including the abolition of homophobic employment discrimination in the military, even though the military is an institution I'd eventually like to see abolished. The contrasts I was drawing between inclusion-oriented activism and more transformative activism were not at all meant as a divisive condemnation of people who have poured their energy into the don't ask/don't tell fight or the marriage equality fight but rather as an invitation to us all to dare to consider a bolder vision of what queer activism could entail and how it could plug into a struggle that would transform the world in a larger way for everybody. 

PRAGMATISM OR MORALITY?

I am writing Tikkun to ask the magazine to boycott bromides and innuendos. Both are basic to all good writing, but statements like the following [from a letter to the editor published in your July/August 2010 issue] are built entirely on them:

I, along with many supporters of Israel who actually live here, vote, and pay taxes, take a pragmatic rather than a moralistic view of the Israeli presence in the West Bank. Better to leave most of it, we say, for the good of our children. On the other hand, the thought of bringing them closer to mortar range is not one we relish either. - Eli Eisenstein

And thus, are only worth unpacking--not printing.

Guilt is not clout. It's interesting that Eisenstein lays claim to greater moral license (he lives there, he reminds us) while at the same time acting as if his own non-moralistic sense of morality reaches high above the messy political strife unfolding beneath him (Is it any wonder his first name means "elevation"?). Israeli citizens don't have any more moral authority over the questions of human rights and equality than the rest of us. Living in Israel implicates one deeply in the conflict, but contrary to the author's suggestion, first-hand experience itself doesn't allow one's actions to exceed morality. So-called pragmatism like Eisenstein's is what makes up the inner-most being of the occupation and helps normalize a situation that is anything but normal. As an Israeli citizen, Eisenstein is actually right in the thick of it, a quite active player who thinks his politics have no use for a moral compass.

But politics is about power and powerlessness, and morality is about the distinction between right and wrong, a set of values and principles outlining right and wrong conduct. Morality has everything to do with the struggle of men and women to make a living, to build a just society, to love the stranger. Hence, nothing could be more centrally involved with morality than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So I can't help but wonder how Eisenstein's pragmatic stance can escape morality, as his dichotomy above indicates.

Eisenstein's personal approach to the longest on-going occupation in modern history, whether he thinks so or not, is the direct result of moral calculations, the direct consequence of his formulations of what is right and what is wrong. Why does he choose to pretend that his political posture is not explicitly linked to and defined by morality itself? Why not thunder and boom one's most deeply held beliefs? Especially when they concern the life and well being of children.

It's not just what Eisenstein says in this short paragraph, but what he effaces, that's upsetting.

He uses the phrase "mortar range" to relate the potential dangers Israeli children could face if the right decisions are not made. Palestinian children, on the other hand, might only be so lucky to face threats that more or less amount to a bugbear. The perils of potentially being within mortar range pales in comparison to the systematic hazards and insecurities plaguing the life of Palestinian youngsters. These children are always vulnerable to, within the range of, routinely subjected to, murdered in the hundreds by the most technologically advanced and lethal military weaponry on earth: F-16 fighter jets, heavy artillery, white phosphorus shells, bulldozers, Apache helicopter gunships and drones. For someone moderately versed in the issue, Eisenstein's "mortar range" statement unintentionally points to the sheer disproportionate madness of the conflict.

My main point here is that I'm sick and tired of people equivocating their stance and neglecting the fundamentally moral nature of all this. A state that is premised on the purity of blood in order to maintain its exclusive national character is a flash point for morality. Is it never moral to militarily conquer and occupy a people. Instead of facing that fact, Eisenstein submerges his arguments in the turbid waters of insinuation. First, Eisenstein monopolizes the moral high ground in the hopes of doing away with it to better inoculate Israeli actions against international outcry. Then Eisenstein signals implicitly--through popular colloquialisms--that he is a fan of occupying the West Bank. Why doesn't he come clean and admit his colonialist stance? Why the wishy-washy language?

Perhaps he doesn't know right from wrong. The oppressor's compass always reads pragmatic--those facts on the ground don't make themselves.

Michelle Ryder

Portland, OR

GOD AND THEOLOGY

"God-talk" is the new hip aphorism for theology. It is a term that has evolved over the centuries, but nonetheless has been the overarching verbal communicator on all things God. But, what happens when this hip God-talk pushes us further way from the God we desire? What happens when this kind of talk forces God out of the conversation? Then, I think we need something tragic to happen. I think we need the death of theology. I think we need the flowers; the black casket; the headstone with the apt three-lettered silencer, "Rest In Peace." Let's be honest, theology as it has evolved has brought anything but peace. If we peer through the lens of our history, a lot of our wars and disagreements have been because of God-talk.

Now, if God no longer resides in our discourse then how can we find her? I think we need to first understand the limit of our language. As famed linguist Julia Kristeva once stated, language estranges us from the object of our desire. So, what we really crave is the Language beyond our language, or in this instance, the God beyond god. The God who insists beyond the god who exists in our finite linguistic discoveries. What this means is that we can no longer rest upon our pedigrees, laurels, or affiliations to authoritatively empower whether we know what we think we know about the God beyond god. What this then does to us who desire to know God is that it invites us into darkness rather than light. It forces us into silence. It brings back the fear of the unknown, and as we know, the fear of the unknown displaces us. This horrific silence displaces all of our attempts at verbalizing our experiences with the divine and pushes us over the linguistic edge and reignites the passions of the mystic. The ancient mystics were more attracted to the divine without words. They saw the silence as a necessary space for "unionized" engagement.

Essentially, if the death of theology is imminent (which I think it will be eventually), then it creates an unraveling of all that we know about God. It makes us all amnesiacs. It turns us into intentionally forgetful people and reinvites God back into our lives as Stranger. If you remember when you were little, you might have been taught that strangers are dangerous and unsafe and not to be spoken to. This is the same with a God who is beyond our theology. God then enters the scene not as peacemaker, but rather as disrupter. God the nuisance. God the being who is beyond hegemonic commodification. In this new space, God enters our lives as one who is present only to force upon us a new kind of silent, mental and emotional vertigo that upsets all of our logic and becomes the ultimate conundrum we deep down know we crave.

George Elerick

Devon, UK

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Will Obama Stop Betraying His Progressive Base?

Photo MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.
Photo MANDEL NGAN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES.


Tikkun Magazine, November/December 2010

Sometime in mid-September 2010, President Obama suddenly discovered that twenty months of governing by capitulation to the very mainstream ideas he campaigned against in 2008 was a losing strategy. But instead of acknowledging his errors, he acted as though his liberal and progressive base were betraying him.

Like most progressive activists who supported Barack Obama's campaign, I understood that a president is limited in what she or he can accomplish in reducing the power of America's economic and political elites. But what a president can do is challenge the ideas of the powerful and rally those who have become aware both that the system is destructive to the future of the planet and that there is an alternative -- a possibility of constructing lives with a sense of meaning beyond the accumulation of money and things.

In a frantic activity before the November 2010 midterm election, President Obama traveled the country seeking to rebuild the enthusiasm he generated in 2008, but he seemed clueless as to why it was not there. The Democrats in Congress who followed his lead seemed similarly clueless: they tried to blame our lack of enthusiasm on their inability to pass the legislation that we (their political base) wanted -- a desire that they dismissed as unreasonable. Even a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president could not, they suggested, overcome the resistance of the Republican Party and the powerful institutional constraints that have been built up over many decades. Then they reminded us that a Republican Congress would certainly make things worse.

The reason progressives are upset with Obama and the Dems is not that we held a naive belief about how much he or the Democratic Congress could accomplish, given the fact that the Democratic majority in Congress was in fact filled with corporate-oriented "centrists." We knew the limitations of this reality -- a reality that was created by Rahm Emanuel and Nancy Pelosi, whose supposedly brilliant strategy in 2006 of backing the most conservative possible candidates in Democratic primaries in "swing districts" worked in the sense of giving the Democrats formal control of the House. Emanuel and Pelosi were more interested in securing political power than in changing the direction of the country. Not trusting the growing anti-war sentiment in 2006, they supported candidates who were ideologically pro-business and pro-war, constructing a Democratic majority in Congress that would back neither anti-war efforts nor the pro-working-and-middle-class measures that Democrats had promised.

By late 2007, liberals and progressives were deeply disturbed that, after the Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006, Congress continued to fund the war in Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition. So when Obama entered the primaries, he created his base of support in part by fostering the impression that he would challenge the warmakers and in part by speaking against the pro-corporate and pro-Wall Street ethos of the Bush administration. His famous speech on racism, in which he distinguished himself from his lefty preacher in Chicago, was understood by most progressives to mean he'd champion the interests of Blacks but also of whites, and he'd do that by avoiding the destructive "political correctness" rhetoric that has isolated so many progressives in the past thirty years, while still maintaining a progressive core to his policies. So when he challenged the selfishness and materialism on Wall Street and explicitly raised everyone's hopes by making "change" the theme of his campaign, progressives reasonably felt we had a candidate who would be willing to speak truth to power.

So what happened? First, he appointed Emanuel as his Chief of Staff and surrounded himself with a White House crew that lacked representatives from the social change movements that brought him electoral success (and this remains true even with the departure of Emanuel and Summers). Then came the sad reversals of direction: He bailed out Wall Street but gave almost nothing to the millions of unemployed or to those losing their homes to avaricious financial lenders. He escalated the war in Afghanistan and left 50,000 troops as "advisers" in Iraq, publicly justifying his reliance on preemptive military force upon receiving an ill-conceived Nobel Peace Prize. He refused to push for a public option for health care and instead supported a plan that forces tens of millions of people to buy health insurance without putting any restraints on insurance companies' continuing escalations of the amount we have to pay. Moreover he agreed to oppose methods to reduce the costs of prescription drugs in return for a promise to slightly reduce the level of drug profits by big pharma. Indeed, the list of reversals seems unending: he pursued repression against illegal immigrants; allowed continued drilling in the oceans for oil even after the Gulf of Mexico disaster and substituted the empty promise of "cap and trade" for the tax on carbons that is the only plausible way to reduce carbon emissions; refused to punish those in the U.S. intelligence community who engaged in torture; invoked a "state secrets" rationale to allow U.S. executive branch leaders to unilaterally assassinate any American citizen they want without redress or due process (the al-Aulaqi case), while giving free rein to private security companies like Blackwater to kill for hire; escalated the use of drones that often kill more civilians than suspected terrorists; and appointed friends of the worst big agricultural firms to run his Department of Agriculture. The list goes on.

Many progressives will vote or have already (through absentee ballots) voted Democratic in November, despite all this. But don't expect liberals and progressives to be able to rally others when the best they can say is that the Democrats and their national leader are less bad than the plausible alternatives. Many others, feeling humiliated at allowing themselves to believe in the hope Obama elicited, find themselves either totally uninterested in politics or wishing to strike back at the Democrats for making fools of those who trusted. Politics is partly about the alternation between hope and despair. Obama's twenty-month abandonment of the ideals that enthused us in 2008 -- combined with the failure of his Wall Street-oriented economic policies and his capitulation to the military-industrial complex -- has generated more despair than hope, and blaming his base for that is stupid and self-destructive. The Democratic Party strategists console themselves by looking at poll data that tells them that most liberals and progressives will vote for the Dems in any case, so their attention has to be on what they conceive to be the concerns of "centrists" and young people who are disaffected. What the poll data doesn't reveal is what everyone who worked in 2008 understands: that it was the mass enthusiasm of progressives that persuaded centrists to overcome their skepticism and students to overcome their political passivity, allowing themselves to believe that a change-oriented president could make a huge difference. Demographically, the progressives may not be so important, but in terms of the psychodynamics of an election, they are often crucial. Obama and the Democrats remain clueless.

In October 2010, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman suggested a new third party for the "radical center." A third party, yes, but another party with centrist politics will spew toothless high-mindedness of the Tom Friedman variety, which will only further weaken the Democrats, without coming close to speaking to what really bothers most of those disaffected from the two establishment parties. What is actually needed is a third party that combines the kind of vision articulated in the Environmental and Social Responsibility Amendment (ESRA) to the U.S. Constitution, the policy directions of our Spiritual Covenant with America, the foreign policy direction shown in the Global Marshall Plan, and the love, compassion, generosity, and non-religiophobic discourse we've sought to develop in Tikkun. Lacking such a party, many progressives will find no other option for themselves but to grudgingly support the Democratic Party. Obama may be able to slip into office a second time in 2012 if the Republicans nominate one of their more horrendous leaders, but until the Democrats and Obama really atone for the directions they've taken, and embrace a spiritual progressive worldview, they are unintentionally but powerfully helping to build the kind of resentment and humiliation that has in the past become the psychological underpinning for the emergence of powerful fascistic movements from the right.

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Abolish “don’t ask, don’t tell” and ask Obama to freeze home foreclosures

We at the Network of Spiritual Progressives are asking you to write to President Obama and Congress on two critical issues:

1. Ask Obama not to appeal U.S. District Judge Virginia A. Phillips’s decision that the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is unconstitutional.

Believe it or not, despite the fact that President Obama says he is still committed to ending the military’s discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, his administration has announced that it will appeal Judge Phillips’s decision. Obama should instead embrace the decision and order the military to comply immediately. Of course, many of us wish that he would also downsize the military and use it to advance peace rather than fight wars. We also wish that the military were not one of the only spheres in the economy where people facing financial insecurity could find a job. We have, however, been unsuccessful so far in restricting the military’s spending and wars. Let’s at least succeed in extending equal rights within the military.

2. Ask Obama and Congress to support the call by Senator Harry Reid and other Congressional Democrats for an immediate freeze on home foreclosures.

The banking and investment world has been caught red-handed: it has cheated many people by foreclosing on houses the banks may not have owned in the first place. So tens of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of those thrown out of their homes may have been thrown out illegally; yet the foreclosures continue. Some centrists and liberals in Congress are calling for an immediate freeze on foreclosures so that no more people get thrown out of their homes. We at Tikkun would prefer that they call for a return of money to all those thrown of their homes in the past unless the banks can prove that they increased interest rates on mortgages out of economic necessity. But that isn’t happening at the moment, so we support the call by Congressional Dems to take this one minimal step: freeze all foreclosures until a thorough investigation of banks’ behaviors has been completed and banks that acted improperly are denied the right to perform any foreclosures for a period of five years. Continue reading

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Obama (and Biden) Have No Clue About What’s Bothering Their Political Base

Shortly before the California Democratic primary in 2008, the San Francisco Chronicle invited me to write a short article explaining why I, chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, was supporting Barack Obama. Like most other progressive activists, I understood that a president is limited in what s/he can accomplish in limiting the power of America’s economic and political elites and in restraining the military-industrial complex, the pharmaceutical and health care profiteers, the oil industry’s relentless destruction of the environment, or the selfishness and materialism that had become the hallmark of Wall Street and increasingly the “common sense” that was conveyed by the media and advertising into the consciousness of many Americans.

But what a president can do is to challenge the ideas of the powerful and rally those who have become aware that the current system is not only destructive to the future of the planet, but also to the possibility of constructing lives that have a sense of higher meaning than accumulating money and things, or building families and friendships that are about love and not dominated by the self-interest “what’s in it for me” consciousness of the capitalist marketplace.

President Obama is now traveling the country seeking to rebuild the enthusiasm he generated in 2008, and seems clueless as to why it is not there. And the Democrats who followed his lead seem similarly clueless. They imagine that we, their political base, must have had unreasonable expectations that somehow a Democratic majority in Congress and a Democratic president could overcome the Republican party of “no” and the powerful institutional constraints built up over many decades. So they try to explain to us why they failed to pass the legislation that we, their political base, would have wanted.

It’s easier for them to believe that their liberal and progressive base is na├»ve than to acknowledge that we are not alienated for their failure to pass appropriate legislation, but for their failure to fight for such legislation. And our upset with Obama is not that he didn’t accomplish what he couldn’t accomplish, but that he didn’t do the one thing he could do: consistently speak the truth, tell us and the country what was really happening in the corridors of power and what the constraints are that he was facing.

It’s one thing to make compromises after you’ve struggled for something you believe in, another to make the compromises without ever trying. Liberals and progressives had already been deeply disillusioned after the Democratic sweep of Congress in 2006, continued to fund the war in Iraq despite overwhelming popular opposition to that war. So when Obama entered the primaries and spent much of his time distinguishing himself from Sen. Clinton on precisely the grounds that he had opposed the war from the beginning, he gave his base the impression that he would be a leader who would challenge the war makers. Similarly, when he challenged the selfishness and materialism that pervaded Wall Street, we felt we had a candidate who would be willing to speak truth to power.

So what happened? Massive bailouts for Wall Street while almost nothing for the millions of unemployed or those losing their homes to avaricious financial lenders; escalation of the war in Afghanistan and leaving 50,000 troops as “advisors” in Iraq; refusing to consider a “public option” for health care and supporting a plan that forces tens of millions of people to buy health insurance without putting any restraints on insurance companies’ continuing escalations of the amount we have to pay for health care; repression against immigrants; allowing continued drilling in the oceans for oil even after the Gulf disaster, and substituting the empty promise of “cap and trade” for the tax on carbons that is the only plausible way to reduce carbon emissions; refusal to punish those engaged in torture in the US intelligence community; and the list goes on.

The president has a bully pulpit that could have rallied the American public to an alternative worldview. Reagan did that while facing a hostile Democratic Congress; Roosevelt did that while facing a hostile Republican Congress – and that is what made them the most significant presidents of the 20th century.

Many of us will vote Democratic in November, despite all this. But don’t expect us to be able to rally others when the best we can say is that the Democrats and their national leader are better than the plausible alternatives. That is not a rallying cry likely to produce many votes or move us beyond our deep disappointments. And many others, feeling humiliated at allowing themselves to have opened to the hope Obama elicited, now find themselves either totally uninterested in politics or wishing to strike back at the Democrats for making fools of those who trusted. Obama and the Democrats remain clueless.

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