Buddhism, Christianity, Consciousness, Enlightenment, Hinduism, Human Nature, Ideas, Islam, Judaism, Life, Meditation, Mysticism, Myth, Nontheism, Quality of Life, Religion, Satori, Self, Self Identity, Self Image, Self-Integration, Self-Knowledge, Spirituality, Taoism, Transformative Experience, Wisdom, Zen

Why Fools Point at the Moon

(About a 7 minute read)

It is a charming, ancient conceit that fools are secretly the wisest among us.  Everyone has heard that somewhere or another.  It is pervasive not merely in Europe — home to the court fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear — but worldwide.

Every culture seems to recognize the truth of it.  In Europe, fools are fixtures at the court of kings.  In the far East, they are sages.  In Africa, they are sometimes deities who wear multi-colored hats.  And among the Native American nations, they are Raven and Coyote. Jung would recognize the fool as an archetype of what he believed was the “collective human subconscious”.

But why do humans so often think wisdom is a property of fools?  It is easy to see why we ascribe it to wise men and women, but why specifically to fools?  What does the fool actually represent to us?

Continue reading “Why Fools Point at the Moon”

Authoritarianism, Bad Ideas, Business, Cultural Traits, Culture, Human Nature, Myth, Sales, Work

Power, Persuasion, and Leadership

(About a 9 minute read)

In high school, I won the popularity contest for next year’s student council president by an overwhelming landslide.  There were only two dissenting votes out of about 500 cast.  The dissenters were my opponent and her best friend.

That summer, I completely rewrote the council’s constitution in order to make both the council and the office of president more influential. I won’t use the word “power” here, because that would be misleading.  Neither the council nor its president had anything approaching real power.

Continue reading “Power, Persuasion, and Leadership”

God(s), Knowledge, Logic, Myth, Observation, Philosophy, Reason, Science, Scientific Method(s), Thinking

What is Philosophy?

Like most normal people, I have my days when I bounce out of bed in the morning enthusiastically eager to discuss the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy.  If today happens to be one of those days for you, you’re in great good luck because the origin, nature, and uses of philosophy are by chance the very topics of this exquisite blog post.  How happy you must be now!

A few months ago, I was discussing the origins of philosophy with someone, and they insisted that philosophy dates back some 4,000 or more years to a certain Egyptian whose name I have sadly forgotten now, but who wrote a book of wisdom literature.

They were quite sure that particular gentleman had created philosophy because they had read about it on the internet.  Of course I have nothing against ancient Egyptian wisdom literature.  (“Dost thou not spit upon the Pharaoh’s face, my son, unless his beard be upon fire”.)  But in my view of things, wisdom literature — no matter how good and wise it is — is not necessarily philosophy.   In fact, most wisdom literature even today has absolutely nothing to do with philosophy at all.  Absolutely nothing!

Unless.  Unless we are defining “philosophy” the way many of us commonly do define it.   For many of us, the word “philosophy” is almost synonymous with the word “opinion”,  and especially an opinion that might be seen as wise. “My philosophy about people is that if you treat them with the respect and decency they deserve as humans,  then it’s far easier to snooker them into giving you the money you wish to cull from them.”   I call this kind of philosophy “street philosophy” or, when I’m trying to be fancy-pants about it, “informal philosophy”.

Street, or informal, philosophy should not be confused with academic, or formal, philosophy.  The latter is philosophy as practiced by such great and polished minds as Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Sunstone, and  a host of others.  I’ll have more to say about the distinction between the two kinds of philosophy later.  For now, it is sufficient for us to recognize that formal philosophy is quite distinct from mere opinion, no matter how wise that opinion might be.

The origin of formal philosophy is traditionally assigned to one man, Thales, a Greek who once lived in what is now Turkey.  About 2,500 years ago, Thales somehow came up with the-radical-for-its-time-notion that natural events — such as thunder,  an eclipse of the sun, or a good harvest — can always be explained in terms of natural causes discernible to human reason.

Put a bit differently, Thales insisted that whatever happens in nature has, not a divine or supernatural cause (or at the very least, not just a divine or supernatural cause), but a natural cause.  Then he went a step further to also insist that we can figure out what that natural cause is via our ability to reason about things.  So, for instance, instead of simply supposing that thunder is caused by a god, we can sit down, reason about it, and perhaps figure out what is the natural cause for thunder.

This was an entirely radical new idea. You can read one ancient text after the other, and no one else anywhere in the world before Thales is trying to explain all nature events in terms of natural causes discernible to reason.  Not in pre-Thales Sumerian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Egyptian writings.  Not in pre-Thales Indian writings.  And not in pre-Thales Chinese writings.  Instead, everywhere it is commonplace to assume that natural events can and do have supernatural causes, unless some natural cause of them is quite obvious.

That is, while you might be aware even before Thales that the arrow you shot through the heart of a deer caused the deer to die — because the cause of the deer’s death is immediately apparent to you — you would not before Thales assume that any and all natural events have natural causes.  If the natural cause of a natural event was not immediately apparent to you, you would most likely guess that the cause of the natural event was something supernatural, or at least mythical.

Even more importantly, before Thales, people did not assume that the natural causes of any and all natural events could be figured out via reason.

As Thales’ influence began to spread outward from his home in Asia Minor, people began to increasingly demand rational explanations for how natural processes made things happen.  And, eventually, this mode or way of thinking about things not only got philosophy off to its start, but also in the end gave rise to the sciences.

So, formal philosophy got started about 2500 years ago with one man, Thales, who somehow came up with the radical notion that natural events have natural causes, and that human reason can discern those causes.  Isn’t it exciting to know that?  I’m excited; I hope you’re excited!

Are you excited yet?

To go on: Reason, as you might suppose by now, is the core of formal philosophy.  Or, to be a bit more precise, the core is logical reasoning.

Academic or formal philosophy, then, differs from street or informal philosophy primarily in what constitutes good grounds or good reasons for holding an opinion.  In street philosophy, just about anything goes.  Sometimes, the only criteria for accepting something is that it emotionally feels right to you, or that it makes you feel good.  So, if someone says to you, “The meaning of life is to find your gift”, you say, “Yeah, that’s right” or “Yeah, that’s true”, if the statement feels right to you, or if it makes you feel good to believe that it’s true.

Formal philosophy is very different from that.  It crucially depends on logical reasoning, and — at least, ideally — rejects any notions that can be demonstrated to be irrational.  It is like a game with only one crucial rule:  You can claim pretty much whatever you want to claim as true, but you have got to back up your claim with logical reasoning.  If you do that, then you score.

Of course, if you fail to do it, then your opponents (other philosophers for the most part), who are always on the lookout for flaws in your reasoning, will gleefully reduce your arguments to finely chopped tears-inducing pieces of onion, which they will then saute on high heat before your very own watery eyes — all the while using logical reasoning of their own to accomplish the cookery, and probably cackling to themselves while they do it.  But that’s the game of philosophy.  It’s one crucial rule is that you must back up your truth claims with logical reasoning, the more rigorous, the better.

Now, to be reasonably cautious, that’s a little bit over simplified, but I nevertheless do believe it to be largely true.

Of course, Good Old Thales was wrong about one thing. He believed that reason alone was sufficient to discern the natural causes of events.  And that was the popular opinion for quite a few centuries after him.  But, as we now know, reason alone is not sufficient.

About 500 years ago, Galileo demonstrated by making several discoveries about the natural causes of various things, that logical reasoning requires a partner: Empirical evidence, or observation.  Alone, both reason and observation are each inadequate to reliably discern the natural causes of natural events.  But woven together, they become that powerhouse of knowledge that we know today as the sciences.

It is commonplace to point out that “philosophy never solves anything”, and in a way, there’s truth to that.  Philosophy has a traditional set of problems or issues, such as “Does god exist?”,   “What do we know and how do we know it?”,  “On what ethical principles, if any, can we base our morals?”, and so forth.  And it is true those problems have been discussed by philosophers for hundreds or thousands of years without the philosophers for the most part coming to any ultimate agreements.

Yet, even though philosophy seldom arrives at any ultimate agreements (e.g. “God does indeed exist.”) it often arrives at agreements about what is a rational or an irrational approach to a problem or issue.  For instance, philosophers long, long ago agreed that “I simply feel there must be a god because if there is not,  my life will be without meaning” is not a rational basis for believing there actually is a god.  There might still be rational grounds for believing there’s a god, but everyone now agrees that is not one of them

But, if philosophy is not useful to reliably discern the natural causes of events, then of what good or use is it?  There are a small handful of answers to that question, but perhaps one of the simplest ones is this: Philosophy has worked reasonably well — or even quite well — as a means to asking the right questions.

The crucial importance of asking the right questions was pointed out by Einstein, who said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes”.

Indeed, when Thales insisted all those many years ago that natural events have natural causes discernible to reason, he was in a very effective sense changing the question of what causes things to happen, and in doing so, he  eventually (and fruitfully) opened the door to the scientific investigation of nature.  It is in fact possible to view the whole 2500 year history of philosophy as a dialog conducted over the ages — a dialog whose main benefit to us has been the discovery of the right or most fruitful questions to ask.

There are a few other uses of philosophy, but that seems to me one of the most important.  I hope this essay will be of some use to you in furthering your understanding of philosophy.  If it happens to be so, I should like to point out that grateful donations of cash can be made to me by calling 1-800-SunstonesScam.  On the other hand, if it has not been of any use to you, I should as readily like to point out that I am personally just as surprised as you are about that, and that I have a very strong suspicion some god wrote the whole thing while I was sleeping, and then signed my name to it.

Anthropology, Bad Ideas, Behavioral Genetics, Biology, Deity, Evolution, Genetics, God, God(s), Human Nature, Ideologies, Late Night Thoughts, Myth, Neuroscience, Psychology, Religion, Science

Why Did Humans Invent the Gods?

I think I’m headed in the direction of becoming a very disagreeable old man.  I think that might happen to me because I have a number of pet peeves.  Peeves that are meaningful only to me — but which I increasingly lack the wisdom to keep to myself.  And one of those pet peeves became inflamed tonight.

I have for years held the opinion — rabidly held the opinion — that E. B. Tylor was mistaken. Tylor, who was born in 1832, was the anthropologist who coined the notion the gods were invented to explain things.

I don’t think Tylor had any real evidence for his notion the gods were invented to explain things.  I agree with those folks who say he was speculating.  Yet, his notion can seem plausible.  And I suppose that’s why his notion has caught on.  So far as I can see, Tylor’s notion is the single most popular explanation for the invention of deities.

Basically, his notion goes like this:  Primitive humans did not have the science to know what caused thunder, so they invented a god that caused thunder.  In that way, their natural curiosity was satisfied.  Again, primitive humans did not know what caused love, so they invented a god that caused love.  And so forth.

Tylor’s views spawned the notion the gods would sooner or later go away because science would sooner or later replace them as an explanation for things.  Of course that hasn’t happened.

A number of scientists have come up with much more interesting theories about the origins of deity than Tylor came up with.  But those theories haven’t had the time to catch on as widely as Tylor’s. Nevertheless, the gist of the current thinking is that our brains are somewhat predisposed to belief in supernatural things — from ghosts to gods.  I have posted about those new notions here and here, but for a more comprehensive look at the new notions, see the recommended readings at the end of this post.


Recommended Readings:

Andrew Newberg and Eugene D’Aquili, Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief.

Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion.

Abrahamic Faiths, Behavioral Genetics, Buddhism, Christianity, Enlightenment, Evolution, Faith, Fundamentalism, God(s), Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Judeo-Christian Tradition, Mysticism, Myth, Religion, Satori, Science, Spirituality, Taoism, Transformative Experience, Zen

The Two Most Important Causes of Human Religiosity?

Thirty-five years ago, I signed up for a college course in comparative religion because, as a hopelessly idealistic 18 year old freshman, I figured religion in general would last for 10 more years, then die out, and I wanted to see what the hullabaloo was all about before it was gone forever.

Of course, I could not have been more wrong about something. Looking back, I had made — not just one — but at least two cognitive mistakes.  First, I was thinking of religion as mostly a primitive attempt to explain things — a proto-science.  That is, I had bought into the ancient and outdated notion that folks had invented the gods  in order to explain what caused thunderstorms, diseases, love, and other such catastrophes (however much outdated, that notion is still around, though).

That first mistake led directly to my second cognitive mistake: I believed science could and would replace religion because it seemed natural and inevitable to me that truth would replace falsehood.

In other words, I thought (1) religion largely offered us little more than false explanations for things, and (2) true explanations would inevitably displace false ones.

Nowadays, I think I have a somewhat more accurate view of how we humans came to be religious animals.  In fact, I think there is more than one cause of our religiosity.  But one of the things I do not think played much of a role in the evolutionary origins of our religiosity was any need to explain things.

It might be true humans are an animal that feels some need to explain things, but I do not believe that need gave rise to human religiosity.   For one thing, religions in general seem to place much more emphasis on the antiquity of their beliefs than they place on their explanatory power.   But if religiosity arose as an explanation of things, then wouldn’t that be turned around?  Wouldn’t people be much more inclined than they apparently are to demand that their religious beliefs accurately explain something?

Today, I think there might be as many as a dozen reasons humans are a religious animal.  But I think, of those dozen reasons, two are by far the most important.

First, I think  Theory of Mind offers us a powerful explanation for how religiosity originated in our species.  “Theory of Mind” is a name for the human tendency to assume that other people, besides we ourselves, have minds.  The polar opposite of  Theory of Mind would be the notion that we (i.e. you yourself) are the only thing in the universe with a mind.  If one wants to know how we humans evolved religious behaviors, then I think one could do much worse than to study how we humans evolved our Theory of Mind.

The second most important cause of human religiosity, so far as I am concerned, is the mystical experience.  The mystical experience occurs when subject/object perception comes to an end while awareness yet continues.  If you are passionate enough about mysticism to be interested, I have written about that mystical experience on this blog, including in my post on the vital topic of How to Marry a Beautiful Woman by Discussing Mysticism“.  I firmly believe the post should be required reading in all kindergarten level courses in comparative religion.

Near as I can figure out, a large proportion of mystical experiences involve what can be described as “an experience of god”.  But even those that do not involve “an experience of god” tend to have a wee little inspirational effect on people.  I, for one, can easily imagine any and all mystical experiences as likely to inspire religious behaviors.

Those are my best guesses these days for how human religiosity came about.   Perhaps oddly enough, if either one of those guesses is true — let alone if both of them are true — then human religiosity is not going to die out of our species any time soon.  In fact, if those guesses are true, a strong case can be made for the notion that humans will be religious so long as humans are Homo sapiens.

Art, Buddhism, Consciousness, God(s), Hinduism, Late Night Thoughts, Literature, Myth, Religion, Romantic Love, Self, Sexuality, Spirituality, Writing

Godless Vampires Suck My Life Force! But Why?

If you are like me — and may Zeus help you if you are  — then at least a few folks are bound to think that you do not worry nearly enough about vampires draining your life force, and instead worry way too much about precisely what, if anything, the concept of a vampire symbolizes.  I’ve been told that it is far more fun to fear vampires than it is to coldly dissect their meaning.

And the folks who say that might have a point:  The goose that laid the golden egg each day did so only until the people dissected it to see where the eggs came from.  A joke can be killed by “over-analysis”.   And even the most powerful mythic symbols can be rendered merely ridiculous by subjecting them to logic, evidence, and reason.

Vampires, of course, are mythic symbols, and hence, they can — and sometimes do — have their power over our imaginations, sentiments, and feelings sucked dry by rational analysis.  So, as a warning to all you vampires out there — it might be best for you to read no further, because we are about to commit ourselves to a dispassionate analysis of precisely what you symbolize.

But let’s begin with a bit of history….

The general concept of a vampire has been around for a while.  That general concept might be described as of  “an undead being that feeds on the life force of the living”.  There are folks who argue that the concept is ubiquitous, but that seems to be an exaggeration.  Instead of appearing on every continent,  in every culture,  and at every time in history,  the concept seems to have gotten its start in pre-Christian Slavic cultures and spread from there.

There is a rich enough history to the concept of the vampire that one can properly speak of there being several concepts, rather than just one.   Early on, the vampire is little more than a nasty, rotting, evil corpse who has come back from the dead to prey on the living.  But when the poets pick up the story in the 1700s, they begin to give the vampire a more rounded character.   By the time Lord Byron’s physician, John Polidori, publishes the first vampire novel in 1819, the vampire has evolved charisma and sophistication.

The most influential of the early vampires was Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which was published in 1897.  In the person of  Dracula, we find find the same charisma and sophistication that Polidori ascribed to his Vampyre, but this time welded to a ruthless, tyrannical being bent on power and world dominion.

Marilyn Ross,  in her Barnabas Collins series (1966-71), continues the trend of presenting vampires as charismatic and sophisticated, but then departs from tradition to portray them as tragic heroes, rather than as the embodiment of evil.  Later, Anne Rice seems to take her lead in part from the Collins series:  Her vampires are once again more tragic than evil.  As Rice states of her heroes:

All these novels involve a strong moral compass. Evil is never glorified in these books; on the contrary, the continuing battle against evil is the subject of the work. The search for the good is the subject of the work… Interview with the Vampire… is about the near despair of an alienated being who searches the world for some hope that his existence can have meaning. His vampire nature is clearly a metaphor for human consciousness or moral awareness. The major theme of the novel is the misery of this character because he cannot find redemption and does not have the strength to end the evil of which he knows himself to be a part.

I think with Rice we have the overtly spiritual vampire.  But it is a deeply troubled spirituality:  Brooding, insecure, introspective, angst-ridden, romantic.  Last, in Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series of novels, the charismatic, sophisticated, and romantic vampire  seems continued.

But what does it all mean — if it indeed means anything at all?

I think the key to understanding the concept of the vampire is to see the vampire as symbolic of the individual self.   That is, the vampire symbolizes the “ego”, the consciousness, the “I” — the self.

Now, I think we in the West have — in some respects at least — a somewhat limited understanding of what the self really is.  We seem to do a fair job when it comes to promoting the “socially responsible individual” as an ideal self that some of us strive to realize. In that respect, we might even be on top of our game.  But when it comes to knowledge of the self, it’s origins, how it works, and what it is, we in the West are relatively clueless when compared to our brothers and sisters in the East.

If that is the case — if we good Westerners do not understand the self as well as we might — then that might help to explain why it is not obvious to nearly everyone of us that vampires symbolize the self.  Indeed, the very moment we hear that a vampire is a mythical, undead being who feeds on the life force of the living, the word “ego” should be screaming in our ear.  But why is that?  On what basis can we say that?

First, let’s take a bit closer look at what the self is.   The self, in at least one way of describing it, is that ongoing psychological process, which takes place in the brain, and that results in a perceived division or separation between the I that observes things and the things that are observed.  In other words, the process that creates the self creates both a perception of an “I” or self and a perception of things separate from that self.

When you divide the I that observes from the things that are observed, you create a world in which the I, the self, mirrors life but is simultaneously cut off from life.   I am not the flower I am looking at.  Since I am not the flower I am looking at, I am psychologically or perceptually cut off, or separated, from the flower I am looking at.  One way of symbolizing this perceptual state might be to call it “undead”.

In one sense, I am alive because I am perceiving.  Thus, in that sense, I am not dead.  In another sense, however, I am cut off, separated from the world, from what I am perceiving.  Thus, in that sense, I am dead.  Combining the two senses I arrive at a symbol that simultaneously fits both: I am neither the living nor the dead — I am the undead.

All of the above is a very dry and abstract way of discussing how the individual self can be thought of as undead.   And if that insight is at all accurate, then the dirty little secret — the truth we probably don’t want to see — the truth we hide away in frightening symbols — is that we are undead.  We are vampires.  For the vampire is a symbol for the self.

Of course, the self being spoken of here is the so called, “small self”,  “individual self”, or ãtman, that can be found in many forms of Hindu mythology,  and which is often distinguished in that mythology from the “great self”, “universal self”,  or godhead. The ãtman can also be found in Buddhist mythology, in which case it is sometimes distinguished in that mythology from — not a greater self — but no self at all.

Now, please recall, that the self has been described as “that ongoing psychological process, which takes place in the brain, and that results in a perceived division or separation between the I that observes things and the things that are observed.”  Since the self is created by a process, it can be interrupted.  And when it is interrupted,  when the process that creates a perceptual distinction between subject and object comes to an abrupt end, while experiencing yet continues, there is then no perceived distinction between the I that observes things and the things that are observed.  It is then that you experience god.

Or, more precisely, the experience that comes about when there is no perceived distinction between the I that observes things and the things that are observed — that experience is referred to by some mystics as “god” — probably because they lack a better word for it.

Since that experience of god is, in effect, the opposite of the experience of self — and since the self is the vampire — vampires can be considered “godless”.  It should be no surprise, then, that Anne Rice’s vampires sometimes suffer from a sense of alienation and meaninglessness.

The self is endlessly aggrandizing, but its efforts to aggrandize itself are founded on illusions.  As the Buddhists point out, nothing in this world is permanent.  But if that is true, then the self cannot permanently acquire anything for itself.  Hence, its efforts to do so are based on illusions of permanence.   Here is a description of the self that might be labeled, “How the self expands itself”:

When we observe what is taking place in our lives and in the world, we perceive that most of us, in subtle or crude ways, are occupied with the expansion of the self. We crave self-expansion now or in the future; for us life is a process of the continuous expansion of the ego through power, wealth, asceticism, or the cultivation of virtue and so on. Not only for the individual but for the group, for the nation, this process signifies fulfilling, becoming, growing, and has ever led to great disasters and miseries. We are ever striving within the framework of the self, however much it may be enlarged and glorified.

Perhaps that description reminds one of how Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a ruthless, tyrannical being bent on power and world dominion.  But whatever the case, the self’s endless attempts at aggrandizement mean that its appetites are theoretically unlimited.

As one insightful writer notes, in vampires, this sense of unlimited appetite is sometimes symbolized as sexual desire:

The modern vampire is still a creature of appetites, and that certainly includes sexual appetites, but the vampire’s sexual adventures are not limited to members of the opposite sex. So high is their libido and so devoid are they of proper gentlemanly and ladylike restraint, that vampires will have sex with just about anyone. The magnitude of their lusts is terrible.

Well, the same applies to our lusts. We humans are also controlled by our lusts, or rather frequently fear that we will be if we let down our guard. Sex can make people do awful, self-destructive things. So does greed. So can all of our appetites. We’re on guard all the time. We aren’t afraid of monsters hiding the dark; we’re afraid of ourselves.

But whether manifested as sexual desire or manifested as greed, lust for power, or something else, the self’s desperate need to aggrandize itself is often realized at the expense of other people.   Briefly (and a bit superficially) it is in that sense that vampires, which are symbols of the self, can be said to suck the life out of  people.  Indeed, I could go on at great lengths about precisely how the self can be seen as something that sucks the life out of others.   But I am reaching 2000 words here, which is quite long for a blog post, and which must surely be trying everyone’s patience with me.

To recap:  I have attempted to show here how the vampire can be a symbol of the self.   As I see it, the vampire has been evolving and so it today symbolizes somewhat different aspects of the self than it symbolized back in the 1800s or so.  But in a fundamental way, it has symbolized the self since at least 1819 and perhaps even earlier.  Whether it continues to do so in the future is another matter.  Symbols are not unchanging.

Of course, many people have their own ideas about what vampires symbolize.  What might yours be?

Consciousness, Epistemology, Myth, Psychology

Was the World We Know Created Out of Nothing — Or Out of Something?

If one thinks of creation stories as containing psychological truths, rather than physical truths, then perhaps those stories in which the world was created out some pre-existing substance are more psychologically true than those stories in which the world was created out of nothing.

I’ve tried to point out in the post that follows this one how our awareness of the world is limited. That is, we are not aware of the world as is, but only as interpreted. This psychological truth seems to imply, however, that our interpretation is derived from some kind of information we get from the world. Our eyes detect photons. The photons are of the world and pre-exist our interpretation of the world. We then interpret those photons. That act of interpretation can be seen as an act of creation in which we make the world — not out of nothing — but out of something (photons).

Yet, if all that is true, and if one wants to look at creation stories as psychological truths, then those creation stories which state the world was created out of pre-existing matter would seem to be more psychologically accurate than those creation stories which state the world was created out of nothing.