20 December 2006

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Morality?

Inference #2 fromRegarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?: Given that cognitive scientists have found that actual moral concepts are not structured as rules with specific propositional structures (as in the ten commandments or an algorithm for solving all moral problems), but rather moral concepts are based on diverse literal body-based experiential conceptions; and given that morality is fundamentally about well-being at every level of human experience; then virtues, as the most common method of conceptualizing behaviors that lead to well-being, are a universal tool for conveying morality. (references: Moral Imagination by Mark Johnson, Varieties of Moral Personality by Owen Flangan and Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson)

The universality of virtues is a scientifically testable assertion that is based on the reported experiences of the authors of The Family Virtues Guide, Linda Kavelin-Popov and Dan Popov, in the course of having traveled the world teaching about the virtues. Dan Popov is a scholar of world religions and in the course of his studies of seven of the world’s most popular religions he identified several hundred that are taught in all seven, and after co-authoring The Family Virtues Guide and traveling around the world, he has not found any religious traditions that do not teach most of the same virtues. Thus virtues may provide us with a set of tools for the development of universal human values that transcend all barriers to harmony and unity, like the diversity of rules for being religious.

The new three R’s, virtues for a Common Society: Respect is the combination of “re” the prefix for again, and the root “spect” which refers to seeing. Thus, I take the literal core of respect to be about taking another look at a person or situation. In the sense of a virtuous way of being respectfulness is the habit of taking second looks before you make judgments and interpretations about a person or a situation. Specifically, I am suggesting that the second look move us away from our propensity for defensive enemy thinking and intentionally guide towards reinforcing our concepts and habits that assume human unity through the language of virtues.

Responsibility is the combination of “response” and “ability.” Thus I take the literal core of its meaning to be about having the ability to respond. This is in distinction from the habit of reacting, which is what we all do when we are too harried to marshal all of our skillfulness in formulating an appropriate way of taking the most graceful or most respectful actions within our lives.

There were a number of interesting studies done on altruism that showed that even when people are holding in mind morality tales like the Good Samaritan they are not generally guided by the moral content of the story, but rather by what they perceive to be the constraints of their situation. If the subjects of the study felt pressed for time they were less likely to help. Although even some of those who were in the situation of having an abundance of time chose not to help, my guess is that they did so for reasons that would probably indicate they saw some other kind of limitation on their ability to affect the outcome of the other persons situation. I’m saying that when people are passing by someone in need, then it is their sense that they have the time, knowledge and others resources to help that empowers them to offer assistance, not just the emotional experience of compassion and, perhaps, empathy for the person. The compassion and empathy are prerequisite but not adequate to inspire helping behavior.

In order to shape our lives by the virtue of responsibility we have to ensure that we put ourselves into situations and groups that call us to be skillful and the best we can be. In this understanding of responsibility it is not simply a result of willful self-control, but also a product of the community context within which you are embedded.

Resourcefulness is the combination of “re” that prefix for again, again, the word ‘source’, and the word ‘fullness.’ Thus I take the literal core of its meaning to be the experience of being full of your source again. The source of your being, in every religious tradition that I am aware of, would be God, so the idea is to be full of God again, just like you were at some point before. This would be the moments in your life when you experienced grace or joy or bliss. Depending on the tradition, they describe the experience of being full of your source in different ways. In recent research in psychology they have come to refer to these kinds of experiences as optimal experiences or as their subjects, across many cultures and referring to a great variety of activities, have said, “being in the flow” or “fully in the moment.” Thus, even the humanists are referring to the same thing as the other more traditional religions.

Thus, we can all get down to some level of agreement on many, if not most, of the core concepts of what gives us well-being. Things like respect, responsibility, resourcefulness, freedom (lack of physical impediments to movement) or love (a nurturing warmth emanating from a being pretty much like me, only bigger.) My call to unity at the end of Regarding Them is based on the possibility that we can probably find at least a few core values that all people can agree on.

Regarding Them Commentaries:

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About God?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Morality?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About God?

Inference from Limitations on Truth from Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?: Because of the universal religious claim that God is inherently beyond human conception, conceptions of God are neither right nor wrong, only different. And those conceptions are entirely exhausted by the four possibilities created by the fact that God has to be conceived of as either personal (having qualities that embodied humans also have) or impersonal (not having human qualities) and either immanent (within the universe) or transcendent (outside of the universe). (In reference to the work of Rev. Fred Campbell.) Thus there are only four possible ways to conceive of god:

1. A personal/ immanent God, (Deism, human qualities within the universe)

2. A personal/ transcendent God, (Mysticism, human qualities outside the universe)

3. An impersonal/ immanent God, (Naturalism, non-human qualities inside the universe) or

4. An impersonal/ transcendent God, (Humanism, non-human qualities outside the universe)

Therefore all conceptions of God are all correct and incorrect exactly to the degree that they constrain God within human body-based conceptions, which are the only kinds of conceptions that we have available. And they are not incompatible with each other, just different ways of getting at different aspects of what God must be since we have consistently postulated that God is beyond human comprehension. Any one person can use any or all of them at their discretion in any combination. Another option is simply not to consider God at all, there is no requirement that one must attempt to conceive of that which is beyond them.

Asserting the completeness of these four options of God concepts is an assertion that is empirically testable, thus it is a question that science can verify or perhaps falsify. Specifically, cognitive linguists can collect data on conceptions of God and figure out if there are any other actual conceptual structures that occur.

Corollary to Inference #1: Conceptions of “objective” reality are constrained by exactly the same limitations as those of our conceptions of God, but are not contained by an equally simple conceptual structure. Every conception that can be generated by science occurs within a cultural and historical context that strongly influences its content. Thus science as a process of on-going conceptual development has far a greater potential capability to thoroughly explain complex phenomena. (reference: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn)

Regarding Them Commentaries:

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About God?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Morality?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

In my story Regarding Them the refrain, “and if everyone agrees, then it must be true” is repeated many times. Of course, you’re thinking “Just because everyone agrees doesn’t make it true. What about objective reality?” That refrain is not, as this response suggests, a negation of the possibility of an objective reality, but it is an assertion that we human beings are limited in our ability to verify the existence and actual nature of what we refer to as an “objective” reality.

We derive all our possible concepts from literal bodily experiences and a set of culturally determined linguistic formalities to connect them. We imaginatively use the logical structure of our literal experiences, with only the very minimum of reference to the original literal content, to understand other kinds experiences, i.e., How can a man be out of his mind? (reference: Philosophy in the Flesh by George Lakoff & Mark Johnson)

What separates us from our primate cousins who have successfully learned to communicate via sign language is that fact that we can talk about minds and how to be out of them, whereas Koko the gorilla and other signing apes cannot get beyond the correspondence of symbols with literal experiences. The signing primates demonstrate the communicative abilities of about four year old humans and make no further progress because they cannot maintain the logical structure of a symbol independent of the content of the experiences that the symbol indicates.

When researchers teach apes to sign they do it in mostly the same way we teach children, through an immersion in an environment where language is a very useful and frequently used tool to achieve individual and social purposes. When we want to communicate with small children we are most successful when we are able to use concrete and literal language. A cup is a concrete object and the concept of a cup is understandable to both four year olds and signing primates. Another example of a concrete idea is a room. What cups and rooms have in common is that they share in the logical structure of bounded regions in space.

When we say that a man is “out of his mind” we have utilized several methods of abstraction. First, the abstract concept referred to by the word ‘mind.’ A mind is a cause of behavior. When you are in your right mind, you cause your behavior and are responsible for what results from those behaviors. When you are out of your mind then the behaviors that occur were not really caused by what we consider to be the real you, therefore you are not held fully responsible for the results of those behaviors. Thus, ‘mind’ consists of causal interpretations of different sets of behavioral patterns with normative implications.

Koko and a four year old can both understand that someone can be crazy. It means they are behaving abnormally. But they will fail to understand the phrase “out of his mind” unless it is explained to be the same as being crazy, or in the case of the four year old you can wait a year or two and it will make complete sense. The difference is in how the phrase refers to the logical structure of bounded regions in space to the abstract idea of mind as a bounded category of behaviors within which is normal behaviors and outside of which are abnormal behaviors. Thus the logical structure of bounded regions in space, such as rooms and cups, are applied to the categorization of behaviors into normal and abnormal with implications for the proper assignment of personal responsibility for the results. The apes do not appear to be capable of preserving the idea of bounded regions in space independent of the concrete experiences of cups and rooms, nor to be able to conceive of causal interpretations of different sets of behavioral patterns with normative implications. In other words, they will not understand the word ‘mind’ as a reference to anything real nor how a person can be inside or outside of one. (reference: The Symbolic Species by Terrence Deacon)

Because the only conceptions we can ever have about Truth are based on experiences of having the kinds of bodies we have, then the only truth that we can ever validate through shared experiences are, based on this fact, those that can be conveyed to others with similar bodily experiences. This does not negate the possibility of experiences that are ineffable, that is unique to an individual and incapable of being conceived of and/or expressed within language. However, if any aspect of “objective” reality occurs in a way that is beyond the scope of body-based conceptions, then we are incapable of sharing them with anyone else and therefore they cannot in any meaningful way be validated. The only kinds of experience that can ever possibly be validated by anyone else would have to be expressed through body-based concepts. Thus I feel obligated to qualify the very term ‘objective’ with quotation marks because it’s normal usage as a form of reality that is collectively validated is in important ways self-contradictory based on this understanding of our existence.

We are, therefore, equally limited in our ability to verify the existence and nature of anything that could qualify as a “spiritual” reality, as well. Thus science and religion are on equally shaky ground with regards to capital ‘T’ Truth. Thus I have drawn the conclusion that universal human agreement is the highest Truth we can ever hope to obtain, and it can, exclusively within the constraints of the logic and extent of bodily concepts, change.

Regarding Them Commentaries:

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About God?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Morality?

How can a man be out of his mind?

Our ability to understand this concept is based on our sharing a number of key aspects of the phrase that are normally only implicit and unconsciously evoked. Consider the parallel construction, “a cup can be out of its cupboard.” This is a literal concrete case that illustrates the logical relationships involved in both concepts.

We know, by the use of ‘its’, that cups belong in cupboards, which are bounded regions in space.

We implicitly know that cupboards are a feature of rooms, which are also bounded regions in space, therefore we know by logical inference that cups belong in rooms.

We know that in this instance we are considering the cup as a location even though it, too, is a bounded region in space.

We know that the cup-as-location has the possibility of being in specified relations to (out and, by logical inference, in) the cupboard though in only partially specified relations to the room (we do not know from this phrase if the cup can be out of the room though experientially we know it can.)

Returning to what we know about “a man can be out of his mind”-

Minds are what cause the behavior of creatures.

A man is the kind of creature that has a mind which is an important aspect of his whole self.

A mind can be understood as a bounded region in space, presumably within the space that constitutes a whole self. Thus, a mind is logically equivalent to the cupboard and a whole self is logically equivalent to the room in which the cupboard is located.

A man’s true self is another distinct part of the whole self and the true self can be understood as a location that has some relationship to the bounded region of mind. Thus, the true self is logically equivalent to the cup that is supposed to be in the mind which is located within the whole self.

While a mind is only one aspect of self, it is distinct from a true self which is the locus of will and a person’s will must be present as one behaves to be held responsible for the consequences of those actions. We make exceptions to important rules for social behavior based on this normative conception of what it takes to be held responsible for our actions.

Under some circumstances the true self is not the cause of a man’s behavior.

When the true self is located outside of the bounded region that causes his behavior then we can say, ”he is out of his mind” which implies that he is not behaving normally and is not strictly responsible for what occurs as a result of those particular behaviors.

Note that a mind does not literally occupy space. We cannot literally perceive minds in any concrete way. Minds are a concept we use to think about the causes of people’s behaviors, this is the literal core meaning of the concept of a 'mind.' Since we also conceive of a person's behavior as classified into separate groups, normal behaviors and abnormal behaviors, then we use the metaphor of boundaries within the space of mind to understand different type of behavior. There is a literal core, but the ways we think and reason about minds are mostly metaphorical. A man can be out of his mind because of the ways we understand the logic of literal spatial relations as applied to the idea that a mind is the cause of behaviors.

On Education and the Embodied Mind

As I see it there are four major schools of mainstream educational theory and they think of themselves as being at odds with each other. I do not think they are strictly at odds with each other but are at odds with the findings of cognitive science to the degree they mistake their metaphorical conceptual tools for understanding education to be literally true. The central guiding metaphor in mainstream educational theory (of which all four schools are variations) is that units of knowledge, skill and information can be transferred into a student’s mind. Each of the four schools are distinguished from each other by where they locate the source of the units that students receive. The primary sources are identified as the teacher, the student, the relationship between the teacher and the student, or the larger social context in which the student is embedded. Below is a diagram that illustrates how they fit together.

The first major school of educational theory was the behaviorists or external constructivists. The dominant industrial system of schooling was designed with the idea that the teacher is the proper source of the units of content in a student’s mind. A teacher standing in front of a roomful of students delivering a lecture is a classic image that depicts the most well-known method of this theory of education.

Criticism of the industrial teacher-centered theory was given it’s most solid grounding through the work of John Dewey starting in 1914 with the publication of his classic Democracy and Education. Dewey was the initiating spark and torch bearer of the Progressive School Movement, and the school of educational theory that resulted was based on the idea that the student does not simply receive knowledge, skills, and information, but actively constructs it based on the kinds of experiences that occur in the school setting. In a student-centered school the emphasis is on providing a set of experiences that are designed to assist the student with their process of constructing a world view. Waldorf and Montessori schools are early classic examples of student centered education. Both had very strong ideas about what kind of world view should be constructed by their students and their systems of schooling are largely defined to enable the construction of those world views.

Relationship centered schools are a synthesis of the teacher- and student-centered schools where the emphasis is on supporting the development of the teacher-student relationship as the true source of educational content. I suspect that most classroom teachers today would probably be described as blended constructivists who are unconvinced by either of the extremes of student- or teacher-centered classrooms but would like to be able to operate their classrooms in a manner that allows them the maximum freedom to focus on their relationship with their students.

The final theoretical school is based on the ideas of situated cognition and communities of practice, which are instrumental in the movement known as contextual education. This type of schooling is organized primarily around providing authenticity. Meaning that if a student wants to learn about a subject then the best way to accomplish that is to immerse them in authentic situations in which that subject is actually utilized in the solving of real problems. The idea is that we are socially constructed and therefore the totality of the environment in which we have experiences is the major source of what we really learn. This view is critical of classrooms as fundamentally inauthentic as social learning situations compared to the reality of the situations they supposed to prepare students to cope with. Until the students are immersed in authentic situations they are not going to be capable of properly understanding the relationships between the abstract units that are presented within a classroom environment. In this view classrooms are still useful, but only after the students have concrete experiences that relate closely to the abstract problems presented within a classroom context. Before the students have the background in concrete experience of the subject, the classroom is primarily going to teach how to behave in a classroom, not in an authentic, real-life situation involving problems that are experienced in ways that cannot be reproduced in the classroom.

The problem is that these different theoretical schools assume that their conception of the educated mind is literal. Taking each conception as literal means that their ways of understanding the mind and how it becomes educated appear mutually exclusive of each other. In order for the underlying metaphor to be taken literally then there would necessarily be evidence that the mind is composed of particular units of knowledge, skill and information and that those units had a source outside of the individual whose mind is composed by them. But that is not the case. Cognitive science, the field that deals with our concepts of the world, has found that we have only a very sparse literal core of understanding about minds, and everything beyond that is metaphorical.

The fact is that all four theoretical schools are at least partly right, but only to the degree that their guiding metaphor, that units can be delivered into the minds of students, is a satisfactory way of describing the reality that they claim to be describing. Since their conceptions of mind are, in fact, metaphors for getting at a complex, non-literal, non-concrete phenomena, then they are not mutually exclusive.

I have taken as my starting point for constructing a new and better educational theory the idea of the embodied mind by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in their book Philosophy in the Flesh:

”The mind is what thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines, and wills. But as soon as we try to go beyond this [literal,] skeletal understanding of mind, as soon as we try to spell out what constitutes thinking, perceiving, and so on, metaphor enters. …[M]etaphors are necessary for any detailed reasoning about mental acts.”

“Our understanding of what mental acts are is fashioned metaphorically in terms of physical acts like moving, seeing, manipulating objects, and eating, as well as other kinds of activities like adding, speaking or writing, and making objects. We cannot comprehend or reason about the mind without such metaphors. We simply have no rich, purely literal understanding of mind in itself that allows us to do all our important reasoning about mental life. Yet such metaphors hide what is perhaps the most central property of mind, its embodied character.”

“[O]ur metaphors for mind conflict with what cognitive science has discovered. We conceptualize the mind metaphorically in terms of a container image schema defining a space that is inside the body and separate from it. Via metaphor, the mind is given an inside and an outside. Ideas and concepts are internal, existing somewhere in the inner space of our minds, while what they refer to are things in the external, physical world. This metaphor is so deeply ingrained that it is hard to think about mind in any other way.” (p. 266)

So my challenge is to conceive of mind in a manner that utilizes the container image schema necessary for conceptualizing mind in a useful way, but in a manner that would still overcome the problems of a separation between our body and mind and the implication that ideas and concepts are somehow independent of the external physical world in which the body/mind is embedded.

My answer is to conceive of mind as a kind of shell. Think of a clamshell or a snail shell. I imagine that the formation of a shell occurs because of three sets of dynamics; internal, external and boundary dynamics. Each set of dynamics influences the nature of the shell; its size, shape, thickness, strength, composition, etc. A shell protects the most vulnerable parts of a creature and yet enables the creature to interact with its environment.

In looking at a variety of real shells from snails or clams there is a lot of evidence about the nature of the dynamics that caused each individual creature to have the kind of shell it had. The exterior of the shell will give an indication of the kind of external conditions that the creature had to endure. There are great differences between the shells of sea creatures who endure the pounding of waves over the rocks on the shoreline and the garden-variety snail that lives in my yard. The sea shell is very strong, whereas the snail in my yard has a fragile shell.

The interior of the shell will indicate some aspects of the interior life of the creature. While the shell itself, its exact composition for instance, will reflect other aspects of the life of the creature that grew it. The shell grows over time and records significant aspects of the pattern of living conditions in which the creature grew.

Exploring the philosophical extension of Fritjof Capra’s definition of life (in his book The Web of Life) as the interactions of structure, process, and pattern, I take these as basic principles for understanding living things. And in this case it is not merely trying to understand one thing, but to understand the interaction between two things, a creature and it’s environment. Thus, I believe I need two sets of structure, process and pattern.

Thus taking the shell as a metaphor for a mind then there are internal, external and boundary dynamics of the mind. The internal dynamics of mind are cognitive order and cognitive complexity. The external dynamics of mind are agency and cooperation. The boundary dynamics of mind are optimism and purpose.

I propose these sets of dynamics based on synthesizing the works of many people, particularly Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi from his research into optimal experience, which gave me cognitive order, cognitive complexity and purpose. The other three dynamics were suggested by work on intrinsic motivation by Kenneth W. Thomas, Edward Deci, and by research into self-efficacy and happiness from a great variety of sources.

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Csikszentmihalyi lays out order, complexity and purpose as the key dynamics that each individual had the maximum ability to influence. I noticed that he was implying the necessity of other, more externally oriented dynamics, so I thought that the simplest possible model of the mind would result from matching those three with three others. Thus, over time I settled on agency, cooperation, and optimism as the structure, process and pattern for externally oriented influences. In my book, Attitude First, I discuss my understanding of psychological dynamics but that was before I had the mind shell metaphor to illustrate it.

The mind protects a person from the world, but also allows them to interact with it. An examination of the mind can reveal many aspects of the life of the person who has grown that mind. A person has different dynamics that have influenced the kind of mind that they have. Internal dynamics, external dynamics and dynamics at the boundary between them and the world. Properly undestanding the mind requires understadning the different sets of dynamics that shaped that mind. In order to influence the shape that a mind grows into requires altering thre dynamics that shape that mind. All of the dynamics that define the mind are body-based concepts. This concept of mind assumes larger social factors beyond the individual mind, but they impinge upon the mind in the forms of agency and cooperation. There are also smaller cognitive factors within the individual mind and they impinge on the individual in the forms of cognitive order and cognitive complexity. What is uniquely and exclusively individual about a person is their optimism and purpose, the dynamics that occur at the boundary between the forces that impinge from above and below.

In this view of mind the crucial factor in education is not the content of the mind, it is access to improving the quality of the dynamics. Each of the dynamics has two negative poles and the mid-point between them is an optimal state that provides the name of the dynamic. Cognitive order is the optimal mid-point between distraction and boredom. Cognitive complexity is the optimal mid-point between simplicity and chaos. Purpose is the optimal mid-point between obsession and spiritual hunger. Cooperation is the optimal mid-point between tyranny and slavery. Optimism is the optimal mid-point between passive cynicism and disengaged pessimism. Agency is the optimal mid-point between obedience and independence.

The consequence of being educated is maximum access to optimal states of mind, independent of the contents of mind that are used to create those mind states. How the content of the mind becomes solidified into memories, experiential filters, and other mental structures will reflect on the life that a person has lived to have the kind of mind they have. (For a discussion of experiential filters see my book, Attitude First.)

Education is not dependent on the contents of mind, therefore the source of the content is not of great importance. The content of mind does have to come from some source and the four educational theories are each attempting to acknowledge one or another source of content. My criticism of most schools is that they are focused on content and not on the quality of experiences. Educational movements that provide notable exceptions to the focus on content are the unschooling sub-culture within the homeschooling movement and democratic schools. There may be other exceptions, but I am not yet aware of any.

In order to further promote the validity and even superiority of these forms of education I propose to replace the delivery metaphor with a metaphor of cartography. Eliminating the delivery of content as a primary concern, the new primary focus is enabling students to create optimal experiences and then providing them with the knowledge, skills, and information to navigate back to that kind of experience any time they find themselves in non-optimal states of mind. This navigational ability needs to be entirely independent of the content of their experiences, otherwise when they find themselves in a situation that has unfamiliar content that they have never encountered before, then they may be unable to cope.

The four schools of educational theory that dominate mainstream education are good for describing the positive aspects of the source of content that they focus on. They are not exclusive of each other, and fit very well together when they are understood to be metaphorical conceptions of the whole phenomenon of education. When education is understood to be a process of cognitive cartography intended to result in deliberate access to optimal states of mind, regardless of the content of the mind, then the sources of content are less important than the development of a cartographic process. A map making process that takes as it’s defining purpose the development of methods for moving towards cognitive order, cognitive complexity, optimism, purpose, agency and cooperation.

08 December 2006

Regarding Them: Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society

Prelude to My Story

Once upon a time we were “better than” them.
Twice upon a time they were “better than” us.
Thrice upon a time we are them and they are us, and we put “better than” away on the highest shelf in the back of our closet, practically lost but not entirely forgotten.

My Story

My story begins long, long ago in a faraway place
I think it was just yesterday when we were visiting next door.
Our people thought we were better than them, those Other people.
You know the people I am talking about, those people who are different from us.
The ones who are not as pretty as us, not as handsome as we are, not as strong, not as upstanding, not as smart, and their things are not nearly as good as ours.
And we thought God wanted it that way.

But it is really hard to tell what God wants because
God’s voice is louder than all noises and quieter than silence,
God’s body is bigger than the whole world and smaller than the mote of dust you can only see when the sun shines on it just so,
God points the way faster than light and moves slower than a mountain,
God completely embraces us in the warmest love and gives us the ultimate freedom to be ourselves.
And sometimes we think that our own thoughts and ideas about what is right and good must be God’s ideas, too.
And if everyone agrees then it must be true.

So we looked at the world, and we saw that we were pretty and handsome.
We saw that we are strong and upstanding.
We saw that we had the right answers.
And we got together and talked about how good we are, and how different we are from those people.

But they were still over there and did not seem to be aware that they were at such a disadvantage.
So we went to them and tried to teach them about how to be as pretty and handsome as us, as strong and upstanding as we are, and how to get the right answers.

But they would not change and some of them even disagreed with us.
Most of them saw how good we are, and some were even grateful that we were willing to share but then they mostly went back to their old ways again.

So it was clear to us that they must have misunderstood.
Perhaps, we thought, they are just so very different that we couldn’t really communicate.
We decided that we had to be a little more clever and creative to help them see how to get our advantages.

So we made up a game.
Not just a little game, but a big game.
A game that everyone has to play.
And we got them to play, not because it was our game, but because we showed them how when we all play this game then we might have a lot of fun together.

But since the game was one that everyone had to play all the time, most of us forgot that it was a game.
Of course, the whole point of the game is to teach those people how to be like us and have all the right advantages.
So in order to really teach them, the game had to show them how
our way is God’s way to be strong, upstanding, pretty and handsome.
And whenever part of the game was not quite right, we changed the rules, just a little bit to better teach the lesson that God wants everyone to play the game our way because it is exactly how God made us.

But it is really hard to tell what God wants because
God’s voice is louder than all noises and quieter than silence,
God’s body is bigger than the whole world and smaller than the mote of dust you can only see when the sun shines on it just so,
God points the way faster than light and moves slower than a mountain,
God completely embraces us in the warmest love and gives us the ultimate freedom to be ourselves.
And sometimes we think that our own thoughts and ideas about what is right and good must be God’s ideas, too.
And if everyone agrees then it must be true.

And since we are not God, and do not always know what God really wants we made a game that was not really fair.
The game was made by us to help teach people about how it is to be us.
And we are the best players of our game because we have the most practice at being like us, and know the game better than anybody else.
But if we set up the game to make us win all the time, then those people lose all the time.
And in case you haven’t noticed yet, it is not fun to lose all the time.
Part of the fun of games is the possibility that you could win, sometimes, even if it’s really hard.

Now, God did make a game for us to play, but it’s not the game we made up.
The game God made up is one in which God is the only judge, God is the only one who enforces the rules of God’s game.
For instance, one of the most basic rules of God’s game here on earth is that up is up and down is down and if something doesn’t have support it falls down, not up.

But not all of God’s rules are so easy to figure out,
in fact, we really don’t know what all of God’s rules are,
we don’t even know how many there are.
That’s why we have invented really big games like religion and science.
Both science and religion are games that we play to discover God’s rules for the universe, but science only looks for some of the rules while religion looks for the others.

Religion is a game we play to discover the other rules that science can’t figure out.
In my religious community, Unitarian Universalism,
we say that everyone gets to decide for themselves which game of religion to play and therefore which rules for being religious to obey.
And after they have decided what religion they will practice they are expected to be
respectful of Others,
responsible for their own choices and
resourceful at getting what they need to be a good person.
We believe that each person has to figure out their own way of deciding what God wants.

But it is really hard to tell what God wants because
God’s voice is louder than all noises and quieter than silence,
God’s body is bigger than the whole world and smaller than the mote of dust you can only see when the sun shines on it just so,
God points the way faster than light and moves slower than a mountain,
God completely embraces us in the warmest love and gives us the ultimate freedom to be ourselves.
And sometimes we think that our own thoughts and ideas about what is right and good must be God’s ideas, too.
And if everyone agrees then it must be true.

Did you know that all people everywhere on earth play ball games?
But, the kinds of games they play with balls are all different.
All people play with balls but they all have different rules for making their ball games fun.
Thus, balls are a universal tool for making fun games.
Those three things I mentioned a moment ago;
respect, responsibility, and resourcefulness,
are just three of the hundreds of tools that all religions agree are necessary for making good people.
All those tools are called virtues.

Virtues are taught in every religion on earth.
Virtues are not the rules of the game of religion,
they are the absolutely necessary equipment that you need to play the game.
How each religion practices each virtue may be a little bit different,
but what all the virtues have in common is that they are the ways that we take care of ourselves, our families and friends.

“Better than” is not a virtue, it is not even a vice which is the opposite of a virtue.
But it is a tool that we use to compare things.
“Better than” is an important tool, because without “better than” we would not be able to tell which water is better for drinking and which food is better for eating and which tool is the best for the job at hand.
“Better than” is a tool that is necessary but it is one that we have to be careful about how we use.
It can be hurtful to compare people in some ways, so we need to take another look before we compare people to make sure that the comparison we make is going to be helpful and not hurtful.
“Better than” should be about how to take care of ourselves and Others, about how to have well-being for everyone, without exception.

But, when I looked at just one of those people,
(you know the people I am talking about, those people who are different from us,
the ones who are not as pretty as us, not as handsome as we are, not as tall, not as young, not as nice, and their things are not nearly as good as ours)
I saw a little girl who got a cut on her finger.
And her cut finger hurt her just like mine did when I cut it once.
Her blood was red just like mine was when I bleed,
and when she cried, her tears were wet, just like mine.
In that moment when I looked at her I saw comging out from inside of her the dearest and most personal things in every human life; pain, blood, and tears.

Seeing her in just that moment I saw how all those things that are usually hidden inside her are exactly the same kinds of things that I usually have hidden inside me.
I have pains that help me remember the hard things that I have to face and make me who I am.
I have red blood that helps me to remember the sacredness of life and remember the mixing of blood that all the fathers and mothers, and the grand mothers and grand fathers before them, have passed down to make me who I am.
And I have water in me, like the salty tears in my eyes, that help me remember that the earth is mostly covered in the same kind of salty water.
And how the water flows out of the sky, down the mountains, through the rivers and lakes to us
then through us continuing the journey to oceans and
eventually returning to the sky again to start all over.
And that water inside me also makes me who I am.

When I remember all those special things that are inside her and me both,
I realize that she is not really that different, after all.
She is not really one of Them, she is one of Us.
And when she and her people remember that, too, then we are them.
And that is how God wants it to be.

But it is really hard to tell what God wants because
God’s voice is louder than all noises and quieter than silence,
God’s body is bigger than the whole world and smaller than the mote of dust you can only see when the sun shines on it just so,
God points the way faster than light and moves slower than a mountain,
God completely embraces us in the warmest love and gives us the ultimate freedom to be ourselves.
And sometimes we think that our own thoughts and ideas about what is right and good must be God’s ideas, too.
And when everyone, and I mean all of Us and Them,
When everyone agrees
it really is true.

Postlude to My Story

Once upon a time we were “better than” them.
Twice upon a time they were “better than” us.
Thrice upon a time we are them and they are us, and we put “better than” away on the highest shelf in the back of our closet, practically lost but not entirely forgotten.

But now the time has come when we have a project to complete and the tool for the job is to compare our options and decide which is “better than.”
The project is how to unify the voices of all humanity to bring about a global harmony that resonates with all creation.
The challenge is to create opportunities for all beings to have wellness.

We have today an unprecedented ability to recognize and honor the wellness of our global ecology, our society, our organizations, us as individuals, our cells and even the molecules that make us up.
With this powerful opportunity for insight across vast scales of magnitude we also have the powerful responsibility to honor this more-than-human world in which we were given existence.

My call to you today is to join me in reviving “better than” as a tool for the transformation of our society from one in which we compare ourselves with each Other by the outward shells of behavior, custom, and circumstances
into a society in which we know we are united by our pain, by the blood we hold sacred and the water that flows in and through both us and our one and only planet to keep us connected and alive.
I ask for your help in transforming our “better than” habit from a tool of oppression and hurtfulness, into a tool of hope and reconciliation.

Let us use the universal language of virtues as both the starting point and end point for understanding the Other’s actions.
Let’s work together to reserve “better than” for comparing the results of our own actions with the well-being we were planning to promote, while giving the Other guy the benefit of the doubt.

I think that God would want it that way.

But remember that it is hard to tell what God really wants because
God’s voice is louder than all noises and quieter than silence,
God’s body is bigger than the whole world and smaller than the mote of dust you can only see when the sun shines on it just so,
God points the way faster than light and moves slower than a mountain,
God completely embraces us in the warmest love and gives us the ultimate freedom to be ourselves.
And sometimes we think that our own thoughts and ideas about what is right and good must be God’s ideas, too.
And when everyone agrees then it really is true.

Regarding Them Commentaries:

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Objective Reality?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About God?

Regarding Them Commentary: What About Morality?

28 November 2006

Boycott the Super Bowl? Responding to Fundamentalist Scientism

The attitude of the staunchly anti-religion faction in the pseudo-debates about evolution are equivalent to my refusing to attend, or even play, any ball games because I believe the Superbowl is a phenomenal waste of money and energy which could be better spent in other, more constructive, ways. To throw out religion as a whole because some people’s religious beliefs are disagreeable, and more importantly because they have succeeded in touting their beliefs, can only be based on a failure to appreciate the difference between religion and one set of religious beliefs. Putting the focus of attention on the conservative fundamentalist factions of the religious and scientific communities and their pseudo-debate is a waste of time, except for the advertising that it sells. Media loves a pseudo-debate because both sides are entrenched, unwilling to compromise and can spew forth hot air time ad infinitum.

Consider my social critique of the Superbowl, which is the most famous specific instance of a single ball game in the United States. There is no reasonable argument against the fact that this particular game takes up a huge amount of resources. And I believe it would be very difficult to argue that the use of those resources has any significant positive effect on the world’s most pressing problems, such as global warming, poverty, war, etc. So, as a staunch supporter of using our society’s resources to resolve our problems before they should be given to making the elite owners of the sports world and their media counterparts richer through entertainment of the masses. Then I realize that even more is spent on the World Cup, not to mention the World Series, and then throw in all the other professional championship ball games and how utterly fanatical so many people are in their devotion to these frivolous activities, then you have to conclude that all those ball games must cause people to become delusional idiots who just don’t see the tragic reality we live in. Therefore, we will all be better off of we just boycott all ball games.

Here’s the problem with boycotting all ball games: Games involving the use of balls are a universal human activity. Ball games provide children with opportunities to learn vitally important motor skills and allow adults to exercise in a way that is engaging. Ball games are an excellent way to access optimal states of mind when the challenges of the game are well matched to the skill levels of the players. Accessing optimal states is an important way to increase the capabilities of individual minds. Thus, eliminating ball games entirely would deprive the world of important opportunities for learning, exercise, and personal growth.

The problem with the analysis that led to the conclusion that ball games should be eliminated is that it only looked at the social consequences of a particular kind of ball game, namely, professional championships that are widely covered in the mass media. A more sensible analysis would be concerned with how our society has chosen to depend on elite owned sporting and media sources for providing methods of accessing particular states of mind, like belonging, order in consciousness, purpose, etc. By looking at what kinds of positive experiences people are getting out of the events then more sensible courses of action, like promoting direct participation in amateur sports, would be evident.

Here’s the problem with the fundamentalist scientism argument against religion: Religion, when understood in the broad sense suggested by Ninian Smart to include dimensions of ritual, mythology, doctrine, experience, social interaction, and ethics, is a universal human activity. Religion provides people with opportunities to consider ultimate meaning and purpose in their lives. Religion can provide adults with a forum for engaging in social and intellectual interactions that can influence their ethical choices. Religion is an excellent way to access optimal states of mind when the challenges of the religious practice are well matched to the capabilities of the practitioner. Thus eliminating religion entirely would deprive the world of opportunities for individual meaning, ethical and social development, and personal growth.

The problem with the analysis that led to the conclusion that religion should be eliminated is that it only looked at the doctrinal dimension of one kind of religious belief, namely the doctrines of conservative fundamentalism which is mistaken to be a salient example, or central prototype, of all religious beliefs. A more sensible analysis would be concerned with acknowledging the other important dimensions of religion, taking a critical look at what examples of religious belief are actually representative (or whether such representation is even possible), and with how our society has chosen to rely on elitist doctrines for providing methods of accessing particular states of mind, like belonging, order in consciousness, purpose, etc. By looking at what kinds of positive experiences people are getting out of the conservative religious organizations then more sensible courses of action, like promoting direct participation in liberal religious organizations where doctrine is open to more inclusive democratic debate, would be evident. One logical course of action would be to promote, develop, or start scientific organizations that provide similar kinds of experiences and could compete directly with the conservative religious organizations, but I doubt that science is capable of producing an equivalent institution.

Religion is a multi-dimensional universal human institution and serves the needs of people in a variety of ways, just one of which is to cultivate a story about the universe and our place in it. Science is exclusively focused on the development of stories, true stories, ideally. I call the furor over evolution a pseudo-debate because the scientific truth is settled; what is happening now is a cultural growing pain, not a debate. The only problem right now is the proper role of science in our society. Does science have a monopoly on truth or do other institutions still have a say?

What I believe is that science, by it’s nature, is limited to making claims that it can back up with both converging evidence, logically consistent theories, and a psychologically valid story that enables us to acknowledge both the positive value and limitations of all previous stories on the subject. Evolution, as a body of converging evidence and a logically consistent theory, is already established truth. In order to have complete ownership to the claim of truth that the scientific community desires then they need a cultural story to put the previous stories on the subject into proper perspective.

The ones doing the real work of providing a cultural story that will make a real difference are people like Ron Schmidtling, Micheal Dowd, and Connie Barlow. Ron is a paleontologist, musician and artist who champions evolution through art that is respectful of the religious perspective (http://www.dinosounds.com/). Micheal, an ordained Christian minister, and Connie, a degreed scientist, are itinerant preachers of what they call the Great Story, a blend of evolutionary science and religion that puts evolution in religious, as well as scientific, perspective (http://www.thegreatstory.org/). I am sure there are other people doing the work, too, but these are the few people that I know about. They do not get as much media attention, but they are the ones who are doing the real work that will ultimately bring the conflict to resolution.

(I owe Rev. Bruce Bode, of the Quimper Unitarian Universalist Fellowship where I am a member, an acknowledgment for his “Dimensions of Religion” Sermon Series from September and October 2006. You can find the sermons on the web at http://www.quuf.org/sermons/sermons.html)

The articles that got me thinking on this topic:

WIRED magazine, November issue
"The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science. Inside the
Crusade against Religion"


NEW YORK TIMES, November 21, 2006
"A Free-for-All on Science and Religion"

06 November 2006

Moral Values for a Pluralistic Society

Draft Statement of Conscience As Revised by Don Berg

(The Unitarian Universalist Association Commission on Social Witness is given a topic by the member congregations at the annual General Assembly which goes through a two year process of study and reflection. Through the input of all UU's who choose to participate in the process a Statement of Conscience is presented to the General Assembly at the end of those two years which they vote to adopt or not, as a statement that reflects the concerns of the Association as a whole. In 2005 this is the topic that was chosen and on October 1st the commission published this draft for more input since this statement is due to be voted on in the June 2007 GA in Portland, Oregon.)

(original draft)


Our Westward journey is interrupted abruptly in the desert,

Progress halts when a solo wheel suddenly goes South.

Hot debates of current events are stoked into fires with the parchment sheaves of yesterday’s prophets.

We heat our rusting deformed ideals and then strike them with new discoveries and insights to forge a renewed sacred hoop carefully tempered for the strength to handle a rough road ahead.

We endure the heat and in the end admire the beauty of creation but also put it to the good work when it is ready.

The forged metal tire is married to the natural wood that fulfills the wheel’s useful function.

Back in place and properly balanced these vital parts restore the wholeness of the system that provides us with the freedom to make our journey.

We are thankful and hear the Call to continue, not because we are anxious to arrive, but because traveling into the West is about learning to flourish and thrive throughout the adventure of living this earthly human life.


Unitarian Universalists have strong convictions about how best to realize our moral ideals and have a long tradition of advocacy to alleviate the systemic causes of suffering and strengthen the systemic support for more global realization of joy and fulfillment. Our history honors many heroes who have taken public positions and acted vigorously on issues of great consequence including religious freedom, abolition, women's suffrage, civil rights, and, in the present day, the freedom to marry. As Unitarian Universalists, we must affirm and reclaim the moral influence of liberal religion in global society.

Our moral values are grounded in the universal human experiences of well being and how humans come together in organizations, associations, businesses, religious institutions, and governments to mutually nurture the health and wellness of all beings. We are a blended family who come from varied backgrounds. We are drawn to a welcoming and inclusive religious community in which we might nurture our spirits and make a positive difference in our world.

What is the moral and ethical grounding of our shared faith? How might the moral and ethical grounding of Unitarian Universalism be given greater voice in civil discourse? We are called to respond to these questions, not only with a statement of conscience, but through acts of conscience that honor our individual and communal experience.

We understand "values" to be principles, standards, or qualities considered worthwhile or desirable by the person or group holding them. We understand "morals" and "ethics" to overlap with the primary emphasis in morals being the customs and habits of behavior through which we try to ensure human flourishing and the primary emphasis in ethics being the social, economic, and political contexts in which our behaviors play out.

The separation of church and state that is enumerated in the United States Constitution is designed to prevent the power, influence, and use of public resources under the control of the government from being wielded in favor of one religion. Those with conservative religious beliefs often speak clearly and passionately of their values related to controversial issues such as abortion, stem cell research, the death penalty, and the teaching of evolution. Unfortunately the tactics of some are not only proving effective at broadly influencing the government, but are also violating the principle of the separation of church and state.


Empathy is the source of our morality. From the findings of cognitive science we know that all human moral understandings draw primarily from the experiences of our own well-being and how we imaginatively extend our understanding of it. While this provides a universal experiential basis for the formulation of similar values, such as love, respect, responsibility, along with all the personal and social virtues taught in all religions, it also means that there is a vast diversity of ways and means to express those values and meet human needs. We base the logic of our moral thinking primarily on having empathy with others and taking responsibility for ourselves and the impacts that we have on the life around us.

A common expression of ethics and morality is found in faith traditions that include Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Confucianism, Taoism, and Zoroastrianism. Known as the Golden Rule, it is commonly stated as "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This expression coincides with important philosophical statements such as Immanuel Kant's Ends Principle, which tells us to treat all persons as "ends in themselves" and not as "mere means to our own ends." These basic expressions of responsibility informed by empathy form a strong foundation for Unitarian Universalist morality and ethics.

An alternative way of stating the Ends Principle and Golden Rule appears in the Declaration of Independence, which says that "All men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights," among which are "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It asserts that people have the right to choose their own beliefs and chart their own paths as long as they do no harm. Abraham Lincoln called this statement "the father of all moral principles."

An international manifestation of these common principles is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in 1948 by the General Assembly of the United Nations. The very first sentence of the Preamble states: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world…."

Our Unitarian Universalist principles express the extent to which our well-being is not only dependent on our family, friends and neighbors, but to the whole human community as well as the entire web of life. These principles represent the use of empathy and responsibility to take the Golden Rule and the Ends Principle beyond simply our personal sphere of moral understanding to include how our systems of organization and social institutions also determine the effects of our choices. History shows us the dire consequences that follow when this common morality is either rejected or logically excludes the complex social influences on human behavior.

We are not divinely duty bound to obey, nor individually obligated to defer to, the moral dictates of our religious heritage, but we as a religious community choose to honor and respect all the sources of human wisdom. Our long history has shown that our highest and best ideals are optimally realized when they must periodically survive the gauntlet of being questioned, revised and resubmitted for acceptance as worthy of our devotion.


The moral values of Unitarian Universalism correspond profoundly with those moral values embodied in the founding documents of the United States and the United Nations. The Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the U.N. Charter embody freedom of religion, the right of conscience, and the worth and dignity of every person.

Yet the United States came into being on a land already inhabited. The subsequent violation of Native Americans, the horrors of slavery, and the oppression of countless others fly in the face of the idealism of these founding documents. Our history until the recent consolidation of radical conservative ideologues in a variety of positions of power in the U.S. has involved the gradual realization of these ideals which continue to challenge us. Ours is still far from "a perfect union."

We aspire to a democratic pluralism, where each voice is heard and each person respected. Like the religious liberals who went before us, it is time for us to work together with those of other faith traditions to defend a basic principle of freedom: we are responsible for ensuring that no harm is done as we exercise the fundamental right, inherent in being human, to follow a life of our own choosing. Where we must understand that harm can be caused by not only our individual action but also our systemic organizational and social actions.


How might we be proactive rather than reactive in the public dialogue on moral values? How might we bridle our own temptation to arrogance and recognize and affirm the common ground of our Unitarian Universalist faith and the freedom of faith espoused in the founding documents of national and international governance? How might we discern, affirm, and live our moral values in our pluralistic global society?

As individuals, let us:

• Take every opportunity to draw attention to the agreement between the moral values embodied in the founding documents of our governments and the moral values of Unitarian Universalism;

• Reflect upon how our moral values inform our political views and behavior;

• Consider the formative influences of our individual conscience and how to evaluate what our conscience calls us to do measured by a criterion of the common good;

• Educate ourselves on interfaith matters;

• Study how complex systemic causes of suffering and injustice can be more easily communicated to those who are not familiar with complex systemic causation;

• Listen to people with whom we find ourselves in conflict, recognizing them as our neighbors, our kin;

• Offer our fellow citizens a model of religion that embraces empathy and responsibility over strict obedience; and

• Amplify our conviction that the application of our Principles and moral values guided by empathy and responsibility can improve our society

As congregations, let us:

• Respectfully affirm and celebrate the unity that underlies the diversity of our congregations;

• Utilize small group ministry as a tool for congregants to discern and apply our moral values;

• Explore and articulate the grounding of our social justice agenda in empathy and responsibility informed by concepts of systemic causation;

• Craft and implement a process by which congregational positions on moral issues can be established and articulated in the local community and beyond;

• Give our children and youth the language to describe themselves as Unitarian Universalists and the confidence to express their convictions and moral values;

• Encourage our religious professionals to proclaim our moral values in the public square; and

• Work with like-minded organizations such as the Interfaith Alliance and the International Association for Religious Freedom (IARF) to more profoundly recognize the pluralism of Unitarian Universalism and the religious pluralism of our world.

As an association of interdependent congregations, let us:

• Realize media opportunities to articulate Unitarian Universalist values and their application to living with respect and compassion;

• Do all possible to support civil liberties and the separation of church and state; and

• Work across faith, cultural, and national boundaries to cultivate a Beloved Global Community.

Through the exploration, discernment, and articulation of how our moral values are grounded in the basic experience of empathy and responsibility in concert with affirmation and celebration of the pluralism of our society, we will rediscover our faith as a living tradition whose grounding and practice will then be visible, audible, and valued in the public square.

02 November 2006

A Summary of My Philosophy of Social Justice

By Don Berg,

Co-chair, Social Action & Education Committee, QUUF

The result of our work is enthusiastic people living passionate lives in a joyful society.

We achieve that result through supporting our congregation to practice the four parallel processes of social justice work; service, education, action and witness. We evaluate activities that are presented for our sponsorship or support according to how they will contribute to both the ultimate result and to our congregation’s ability to improve their commitment to social justice work.

Enthusiastic people have the knowledge, skills, and information necessary to navigate back to optimal states of mind when they are lost. Optimal states of mind are defined by a combination of six qualities that have been drawn from research into optimal experience (primarily Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work), happiness, and intrinsic motivation. The six qualities of mind are agency, optimism, purpose, cooperation, cognitive order and cognitive complexity.

Passionate lives are guided by a balance of personal interests and the needs of the moral context in which that person is embedded and society provides abundant support for everyone to continuously discover and rediscover that balance. The moral context takes into account the five primary levels of our human scale of impact on each other; cells, individuals, groups, societies and life on earth.

A joyful society provides consistent access to optimal states of mind and provides appropriate interventions to assist anyone who loses, or is unable to, achieve optimal states of mind.

Service is the opportunity to directly meet human needs. There are three distinct categories of human needs:

1.our structural needs for air, water, security, food, shelter, and belonging;

2.our pattern needs which develop over time, as described by Piaget, Maslow, Graves, Cowen and Beck; and

3.our process needs for identity, understanding, freedom, participation, idleness, creation, affection and protection, which were described by Manfred Max-Neef (his category of subsistence is what I call structural needs).

Education is our inquiry into understanding our world and our place in it. Education is our training ground for becoming adept at accessing optimal states of mind through ever more and varied ways. Every discipline, field of study, form of intelligence, and formal practice is a vast hallway with abundant opportunities to reach optimal states of mind. Behind every door is a library of stories that tell us about our world and how we fit into it.

Action is how we build a sense of belonging to a caring community at the transpersonal levels of our moral context: the communal, societal and ecological. Through coordinated action we continuously improve the games that society provides for us to play. Through action we try to make the games we play fair and the playing fields level. Action is not about winning or losing, it’s about making all the games engaging and worthwhile.

Witness has two distinct traditional meanings and both are crucially important. In the Christian tradition it means to bear witness. For example the charismatic preacher asks, “Do I have a witness?” looking for his audience to validate the truth of an example or point he is making. Another example is when someone observes events of the world so that they will be known, i.e., in the Quaker and other pacifist traditions of being present to oppression, violence and the brutality of the powerful over the powerless. In these Christian traditions witness is a social act of affirming the truth of what is spoken or giving voice to those who do not have one.

In the Buddhist tradition witness is about achieving a state of mind in which we can perceive the events of the world without being a victim to the meanings that we habitually attach to those events. In our innate, naïve habit of constantly monitoring the world for dangers and opportunities we do not observe the world, instead we persistently judge and interpret events without being aware of how that constant practice can cause us to delude ourselves about what is really happening. In the Buddhist meditative traditions they develop a different habit of mind that allows for participation in and observation of events without the emotional and psychological attachment that normally occurs. The ideal of this form of witness is to be fully engaged with the world from the vantage point of observing ourselves and the world in a whirling waltz around our awareness.

The two ways of looking at the process of witnessing are both vitally important to achieving the desired outcome. We must develop both the personal ability to observe the truth without decieving ourselves and the ability to share our truth and affirm the sharing of others who speak the truth from their perspective. In this understanding of witness, then, we are not only charged with the call to observe in the world, but to observe in ourselves, as well. Therefore, this is a call to seek the artist as well as the activist, since both have uniquely honed abilities to observe the world in ways that are shaped by uncommon discipline.

Postscript: I have expanded on this piece on my web site School Of Conscience.org.

12 October 2006

Universal Schooling Fails to Universally Educate

In spite of a nearly universal schooling system our country does not have a universally educated citizenry. Both the general public and those who are intimately involved in the schools agree that there is a crisis and everyone points at someone else to place blame. Howard Gardner pointed out in his book The Unschooled Mind our system consistently produces professionals with advanced graduate degrees who are unable to apply the most basic concepts in their field (i.e. professional physicists who fail to apply basic high school principles of physics in realistic situations.) Based on this and many other critical examinations of the performance of our system since John Dewey’s Democracy and Education from 1916 it is clear that schools succeeds at schooling but fail at educating.

The failures of the system are far more deep seated than merely sparse funding, biased curriculum, overwhelmed teachers, lack of accountability, and/or lazy students, failure stems from the ways we think about ourselves and our concept of education itself. We have been relying on an antiquated set of concepts that have been undermined by new findings in the cognitive sciences. Scientists from a variety of specialized fields have come to agree that some of our long held assumptions about ourselves and how we operate in the world are fundamentally flawed. If we can think about ourselves and education in ways that better reflect how we actually exist in the world, rather than our instinctive a priori assumptions about our existence in the world, then we will discover more effective ways to achieve universal education.

Change requires us to ensure that the components of the system are in appropriate relationship to one another, not necessarily improve the components themselves. As a parallel example what if over half of the population in this country were unable to get to work each day. Naturally you will first assume that there is some defect in one of the general components in the transportation system. Either, there are no transportation options available, people are unable to operate the options that are available, the options do not go where people need them to go, or the mechanisms are broken. Now what if you then learn everyone owns a car, they own fuel for their cars, they are experienced and capable drivers and that the roads are all clear and go directly to every possible workplace? This is the situation in education for most of the United States of America. We have the school facilities, we have reasonably good teachers, we have reasonably good children, we have reasonably good curriculums, and we have reasonably good administrators. Certainly not perfect, by any means, but definitely functional. If all the components are in good working order, then why is there a problem, an alarming crisis, in fact?!

Consider that the components are not aligned properly; the ways they currently relate to each other are dysfunctional. If my car is brand new off the assembly line in Detroit and the gas is still at the refinery in Long Beach, California and I am sitting in Port Townsend, Washington, then it does not matter what condition the components are in, I will still fail to achieve transportation until I do something to bring the components together and align them properly. The same is true in education today. The majority of the components are in good working order, but their relationships are dysfunctional:

• the community is expecting schools to produce good test scores and diplomas instead of moral human beings,

• the schools are delivering information to their students instead of inspiring civic participation and meaningful contribution,

• the teachers are managing behaviors instead of leading the learning process,

• the administrators are fighting ignorance and engineering our society instead of supporting teachers and leading the community,

• the schooling industry (the suppliers of school materials and services) is aggressively seeks profits instead of supporting society to adapt and change in service to the needs of future generations.

The challenge of shifting our relationships under the current circumstances means we have to give up the luxury of pointing at someone else to blame. The fact is that relationships are a collaborative process and we have to take responsibility for our role in the mess, as well as our contribution to the clean up. We have all participated in creating the mess that our schools are in, mainly because some of the key aspects of our long and venerable philosophical traditions have turned out to be wrong, thus we didn’t know any better.

There is no shame in making a mistake. The shame is in neglecting to correct the mistake once the opportunity arises to make good. The opportunity before us is to begin the process of healing by acknowledging our own complicity, learning to accept the evidence that can get us back on course and acting to prevent further dysfunction.

28 August 2006

Belief-O-Matic, The Religiosity Test

The Belief-O-Matic asks 20 questions of religious significance and returns a ranking of 27 major religious belief systems according to a percentage of their consistency with your answers to the questions.

Here are my results from the Belief-O-Matic on August 28, 2006:

1. Unitarian Universalism (100%)

2. Liberal Quakers (99%)

3. Neo-Pagan (98%)

4. New Age (95%)

5. Mahayana Buddhism (93%)

6. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (91%)

7. Christian Science (Church of Christ, Scientist) (90%)

8. New Thought (86%)

9. Scientology (86%)

10. Taoism (81%)

11. Secular Humanism (76%)

12. Theravada Buddhism (76%)

13. Reform Judaism (68%)

14. Bahá'í Faith (63%)

15. Orthodox Quaker (61%)

16. Hinduism (56%)

17. Sikhism (51%)

18. Jainism (51%)

19. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints(Mormons) (47%)

20. Mainline to Conservative Christian/Protestant (44%)

21. Nontheist (42%)

22. Islam (35%)

23. Orthodox Judaism (35%)

24. Jehovah's Witness (29%)

25. Seventh Day Adventist (26%)

26. Eastern Orthodox (23%)

27. Roman Catholic (23%)

The first time I took this a year or two ago Neo-Pagan scored higher
than Unitarian Universalism. Since I have been actively involved in a UU
congregation during that time it probably has an effect.

26 August 2006

Mutual Portraits by Noah and Me

My friend Noah and I were playing with my Treo on July 28th and these
are the result.

24 July 2006

Epson Stylus CX6600 Reset Error Message

I had this error message appear on my Epson CX6600:

"Parts inside your printer are at the end of their service life. See your printer's documentation for details. Contact your dealer."

Following the directions below I was able to get my printer working again. I have a bulk ink system installed and when I first encountered this problem it ended up costing me over $40 to have them do what I presume was the same thing. There is no indication that there is any real threat of ink spilling out of the printer due to overflow from head cleaning, so I have not attempted to further modify the printer.

Found this online:

"Assuming you have completed your modification... [i.e. fixed the problem]

1. first turn off your printer
2. push the b/w + color + stop buttons together and hold
3. push the power on button and hold (so you'll now be holding down 4 buttons together)
4. Don't release all the buttons until you see the light indicator is blinking and then a message display on the lcd
5. release all the buttons
6. push the color button (once)
7. turn off the printer
8. turn it on again."

Another helpful link:


My Bulk Ink System is the IJC C86 Bulk Feed System from inkjetsusa modified for the CX6600. (If you want to do the same make sure to let them know you are going to use it for a CX6600 so they will adjust acordingly.) I have been very satisfied with the system, although I did have to use my Dremel to alter a part of my printer to make it work. Here's photos to show what I did to the printer:

The photo above shows the printer cartridges in place and my finger pointing to the modified bit.

The next two photos show the bit before and after it was modified and shows how I put paper in the printer to contain the shavings from the dremel cutter.


Finally, here is a photo of the bulk system in place. I added some extra support to the plastic piece that was provided to attach the tubing. I had to increase to thickness of the piece that was meant to stick it to the underside of the case and then added paper clips to ensure that it did not come off easily. The scotch tape helps keep the tubing from catching on the ink cartridge carrriage.

02 June 2006

Tax Math Reframed

Liberalizing a Conservative Parable of Uncertain Origin

Suppose that every day, ten men go out to their exclusive buffet dinner club and the membership dues for all ten came to $100 each day. If they paid their membership dues the way we pay our taxes in America, it would go something like this:

The first four men (the poorest) would pay nothing.

The fifth would pay $1.

The sixth would pay $3.

The seventh would pay $7.

The eighth would pay $12.

The ninth would pay $18.

The tenth man (the richest) would pay $59.

So, that's what they decided to do.

The ten men ate dinner in the restaurant every day and were happy with the arrangement, until one day, the club manager threw them a curve. "Since the club is doing so very well," he said, "I'm going to reduce the cost of your daily dues by $20." Membership dues for the ten now cost just $80 each day.

The group still wanted to pay their dues the way we pay our taxes so the first four men were unaffected. They would still eat for free. But what about the other six men - the paying members? How could they divide the $20 windfall so that everyone would get his 'fair share?'

They realized that $20 divided by six is $3.33. But if they subtracted that from everybody's share, then the fifth man and the sixth man would each end up being paid to eat their meal.

So, the club manager suggested that it would be fair to reduce each man's bill by roughly the same amount, and he proceeded to work out the amounts each should pay.

And so:

The fifth man, like the first four, now paid nothing (100% savings).

The sixth now paid $2 instead of $3 (33% savings).

The seventh now paid $5 instead of $7 (28% savings).

The eighth now paid $9 instead of $12 (25% savings).

The ninth now paid $14 instead of $18 (22% savings).

The tenth now paid $50 instead of $59 (16% savings).

Each of the six was better off than before. And the first four continued to eat for free. But once outside the restaurant, the men began to compare their savings.

"I only got a dollar out of the $20," declared the sixth man. He pointed to the tenth man, "but he got $9!"

"Yeah, that's right," exclaimed the fifth man. "I only saved a dollar, too. It's unfair that he got almost ten times more than me!"

"That's true!!" shouted the seventh man. "Why should he get $9 back when I got only two? The wealthy get all the breaks!"

"Wait a minute," yelled the first four men in unison. "We didn't get anything at all. The system exploits the poor!"

The nine men surrounded the tenth and then he said, “Now hold on boys, let’s consider what’s really going on here. Isn’t the manager of our club sending our sons and daughters over to another club across town to kill or die?”

One of the five who receive meals without paying dues replied, “Yeah and mostly ours not yours, so, what’s your point?”

So he continued, “Doesn’t his attacking the other clubs cause our club to run a deficit and accumulate debt?”

The eighth man replied, “So?”

He continued, “Don’t you think it’s a little odd to suddenly offer us a dues reduction when the club is operating on deficit spending and accumulating debt? Do you really believe that is a good way to manage our club?

“I know that we don’t always agree on how to pay the dues, but let’s not forget that we are all equal owners of this club. The reason we created the club in the first place was to make sure we all had a good meal every day, we started this club in order to take care of each other. We distributed the dues so that everyone can reasonably afford to be members. Our club system is not about who gets how much, it is about how well we are taking care of each other. If there are problems in our club it is because we aren’t taking good care of each other and club resources are getting diverted from the real purposes we created the club to serve.

“We were all upset to find out how mistreated members of the other club were and when the manager made his case for the threat against us we believed him and trusted that he was using good judgment, so we supported his proposal to take aggressive action, but that’s not what our club was created to do.

“Now consider the fact that you were about to lynch me. Anger and fear are not good states of mind for making caring decisions. When we act out of the fear and anger then we sometimes take actions that we later regret. If our club is going to take care of us then we have to figure out how to care for each other, not attack one another. We need to think about how to design a club system that supports us to be creative and bold, not afraid and defensive. We all agree that we need to be strong as a club, and while the strength of fearful defense is strong, the strength of creative and bold loving is even stronger!

“We need to reconsider the purpose and mission of this club and then alter how we manage our manager to serve the club not the manager. In any case, lynching is not a solution to the problem.”

So they all drifted home and went to bed feeling guilty for almost lynching their friend. But after seeking personal support amongst each other, receiving a little counseling, and investigating how to be empowered club members they hired a new manager, revised the charter, stopped attacking other clubs and lived happily until the next time they got complacent, hired a fear mongering manager, and felt like lynching somebody again.

[To get the original story and find out about it’s reputed but indefinite origins: http://www.snopes.com/business/taxes/howtaxes.asp ]

In the original story as it came to me by e-mail the ten men were eating at a regular restaurant and the "club manager" was actually the "restaurant owner." But that raises the question of whether the relationships in the parable accurately reflect an appropriate parallel to the relationships that they are being used to represent.

When I googled the original parable to find out if the math was incorrect there was not a single refutation of the math, although there were some comments on the violent finale in which the rich guy gets lynched. It was overly dramatic, but it exemplifies the real fear embedded in the original “conservative” version.

In my revision I have tried to incorporate a different set of embedded assumptions that would better reflect on my understanding of the way things are supposed to work. Although I did not succeed in countering all of the original misguided assumptions I covered most of them. Here are the embedded assumptions of the original that seem to me to be problematic or not matched to reality as I understand it along with criticisms questions or an alternative to each:

1. the government is a restaurant that can be owned by someone
Criticism: The very idea that the government can be owned is sickening enough, but to imply that it is owned by the president or the ruling party is even worse.
Alternative Frame: The government is a club in which we receive benefits by virtue of membership.

2. the owner of the restaurant is separated from or different than those whom he serves
Alternative Frame: The manager of the club is also a member of the club

3. the owner of the restaurant is free to change prices without any consideration of costs
Alternative Frame: The manager is obligated to justify changes in dues based on real costs and a reasonable plan for managing the club resources to accomplish the mission of the club (without conflicts of interest)

4. the bill is presumed to be paid entirely by personal income taxes
Questions: The costs of the government club are covered by more than just personal income taxes so an accurate picture of the tax system should reflect those other obligations and how they are collected. How much do corporate taxes contribute to the maintenance of the club? How could we portray their role and contribution?

5. when the rich customer is killed his resources are assumed to disappear
Problem: The rich customer’s assets would probably get caught up in probate and the lawyers in the group would probably end up with most of them. In any case the fifty bucks would not simply disappear, they would go to someone else who would simply assume the position and the bill would still get paid, but by a different person.

6. The benefits of the restaurant meals are assumed to be received uniformly amongst the customers
The club is founded for the purpose of our common welfare such that the club is on a mission to provide nurturing support to the members. The buffet dinner was meant to represent this uneven distribution of the available benefits, but this still misrepresents the situation because many of the people who might stand to benefit are discouraged or otherwise prevented from receiving the benefits they may be entitled to have. The story would have to include some way of insulting the poorest for being poor before they could get their meal.

Another problem with the parable is that the idea that a reduction in the amount that each person pays should be calculated as if it were cash to be received as a refund instead of a discount off the original price. A manager that discounts more than a 100% would be fired for giving away the store.

I have also neglected to redistribute the gender, educational level, sexual orientations and racial attributes of the characters in the story, which would be required for a full liberalization of the tale.

My rewriting is at least partly inspired by ideas in George Lakoff's books, Don't Think of An Elephant and Moral Politics.

[FYI- I have revised this post since Karl Low made his comments and some of his critique has been helpful in revising the post since then.]