eXTReMe Tracker WARNING: The opinions expressed and linked to in this blog are not necessarily mine (anymore).

My ideas are constantly changing as I learn. Sometimes they even change midway through writing a post.

Thursday, January 20

Are you already dead?

"One of the prisoners, who on his arrival marched with a long column of new inmates from the station to the camp, told me later that he had felt as though he were marching at his own funeral. His life had seemed to him absolutely without future. He regarded it as over and done, as if he had already died." p. 113 of Man's Search for Meaning

Wednesday, January 19

Anti-Semitism

I've wondered for some time whether there was some real quality or aspect of Jewish culture that drew the hatred of so many or whether the Jews were simply convenient scapegoats.
I've read some about Arabic textbooks containing anti-American propaganda. If that's true, then it wouldn't be inconsistent that they contained anti-semitic propaganda.

I have been meaning to read A Short History of Isreal.

I've never noticed anything about Jewish people that would make them anything less than good neighbors. I have wondered, sometimes, what the U.S. would be like, though, if some of the "nice" fundamentalist Christians I've known had their way with government. I wonder whether muslims make good neighbors. Their governments certainly don't sound nice...

Saturday, January 15

Nonviolent Communication

I've been reading fast trying to get through the rest of Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Create Your Life, Your Relationships, and Your World in Harmony with Your Values by Marshall B. Rosenberg. "Nonviolent Communication" doesn't convey what they book is about very well, but the rest of the title does.

I found the concept of people having basic needs in common interesting. Of course, I've thought of people as having needs like food and shelter in common. Rosenberg goes much further in identifying emotional needs. He suggests that when one feels angry, it is because one of these needs is not being met and taking the time to figure that out and express it. He also suggests starting out with empathizing with a person, forming a connection with them, before expressing needs.

One aspect of the book that troubled me a bit was an example of a bigger child hitting a smaller child. He suggested empathizing with the bigger child first. It could seem that you don't really care too much about what is being done to the smaller child and that perhaps you think the older child is "justified" in his actions. Then again, it could be that once the younger child is encouraged to express his need - for safety - the older child will respond to this favorably and be motivated to better ways of dealing with problems. Hopefully, the message they're both getting is that things can and should be worked out.

Tuesday, January 11

Morality and Judaism

I ran across an interesting concept while browsing the section in Judaism 101 about Halakhah ("Jewish Law"). Halakhah is made up of mitzvot ("commandments"), gezeirah, and some other types of rules and customs that I don't want to get into here. The idea that interested me was the gezeirah.

A gezeirah is a law instituted by the rabbis to prevent people from accidentally violating a Torah mitzvah. For example, the Torah commands us not to work on Shabbat, but a gezeirah commands us not to even handle an implement that you would use to perform prohibited work (such as a pencil, money, a hammer) without a good reason, because someone holding the implement might forget that it was Shabbat and perform prohibited work.

Many of our current laws seem to be established because following them is thought to prevent people from being more likely to do bad things. For example, drug laws are supposed to prevent people from using certain drugs partly because drug use is thought to contribute to people doing bad things (drive recklessly and with slower reflexes, neglect or abuse their family members, act aggressively, etc.) Some people believe this is the wrong approach. They would argue that some people who use drugs do no harm to other people and so are innocent and that it is only actual harm which should be addressed. If you're single and you smoke a joint in your on home, go to bed, and the effects have worn off by the time you get in the car to go to work the next morning, then why should anyone have the right to stop you?

Morality - On Learning from Good People

I've been thinking a lot about morality and being a better person lately. It's not unusual for me to do this, but my thinking about it has taken on a different direction.

It was suggested to me that if I want to be a better person, I should look to someone better than myself and do as they suggest and have them tell me if I've done as they suggest. There are a few difficulties with that idea: (1) How do I know if someone is indeed better than me? Wouldn't that require knowing something about what is good and what is not? It seems like I went from one set of moral beliefs (Christianity) to another (Objectivism) without really making an effort to explore morality in a general way and try to select the best ideas. Maybe I could figure out the best moral system as a starting point and find people who seem generally moral. Then again, if I found good moral ideas, I could simply follow those ideas and probably enjoy the company and encouragement of other people who believe similar moral ideas. (2) Being better than me wouldn't mean that a particular good person would know how to express to me how it is that they are better or what I should really do. (3) A person who is "better" might be so partly because they lack certain experiences and knowledge that I have. This might make them unable to even address my particular areas of difficulty because they have no knowledge of it. Then again, I have done it before.

When I first became a parent, I had decided that it wasn't good to spank my children. I thought it would be a simple, easy decision to follow up on. So I was very shocked to find out just how angry I could be at such a little person. It seemed like my child knew exactly what to do to make me feel as frustrated and angry as possible. "Not spanking" took and extreme effort on my part. Other parents didn't mention having such difficulty. I assumed something was wrong with me and tried to think of a way to actually change my feelings. It seemed to me that I was getting upset over things that really weren't a big deal and also that I had no strategy for what TO do with my child instead of spanking.

I read a few books on these ideas and talked to other parents a bit. I remember being relieved to see this title: Discipline without Shouting or Spanking. I also got some help from books like How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids will Talk and P.E.T. (Parent Effectiveness Training). They didn't always work to improve my child's behavior or my feelings, but the idea of developing a set of alternative strategies for interacting with my child made a huge improvement.

I also tried to keep in mind some words of wisdom from a Jewish atheist friend. I don't remember exactly how he said it, but essentially, he said that parents often make the mistake of thinking their children know way more than they really do. He said that parents often assume children have much more complicated and bad motives for doing things - motives that would make sense for an adult but which wouldn't even occur to a child.

I thought about this recently when I was watching some people interact with a toddler. The toddler was running around exploring and looking at things. There were some things which he would look around cautiously before exploring. The adults assumed that he "knew" it was a bad thing to do and was trying to see if he could get away with it. They seemed to think it was a bit amusing that he so obviously tried to sneak doing naughty things. It seemed to me that, in fact, he simply knew that they would try to stop him and was seeing if they were looking or not. I am very doubtful that he had real understanding of "bad". All he knows is that some people don't like him to do some things sometimes and will try to stop him.

Anyway, at some point, I realized that "not spanking" was no longer a struggle. It rarely occurred to me to even think it and definitely stopped being something I struggled against. It had become almost easy.

It might be that simply having a set of better ways to interact with my child would have helped me a lot to begin with. It wouldn't have solved the problem, though, of my becoming angry and having difficulty enacting such strategies. I think I could write a book on that subject alone.

Sunday, January 9

Axioms

I haven't had time to read up on alternative theories to Objectivism's three axioms yet, but I have been thinking about them a little.

It seems like there is a problem in Objectivism that makes it difficult sometimes to get better knowledge. In order to find a good idea, one generally has to wade through many less good ideas. Rand suggests refusing to expend much mental effort in new ideas unless one has a good reason to think it might be true. The problem is, sometimes an idea doesn't get presented to one with the most relevant parts first. A particular person may not understand the idea fully himself or may not realize that he is assuming some ideas that you are not. One could miss out on a great new idea simply because it's presented badly. A little effort spent trying to understand the idea better may result in one finding out that it's actually a potentially good idea (at least, one that seems good given one's current knowledge). Another important thing about this is that even if the idea turns out to be wrong, as far as one knows, one will have learned more about the subject and possibly be able to better articulate one's own ideas better.

So back to the idea of potentially better ways to think about metaphysics. The little bits that I have read suggest thinking about things more wholistically.

"There were not two; beholder was one with beheld; it was not a vision compassed but a unity apprehended." (Plotinus quoted in Nonduality by David Loy.

At first, this seemed like nonsense. A TV is not the person viewing the TV. Thinking about it again, though, one could view the TV and the person as being part of something bigger - like the universe. There are a lot of things the TV and person have in common. For example, they might both be held down by gravity, have a "solid" form, make noise at times, need some sort of energy input. There are differences, too, of course. It may be that the differences are more important or useful to notice. I'm curious to find out whether there is some advantage to thinking about reality this way or whether it's just a way of enriching the views I already have.

The Right to Exist

Upon further reflection, I think the quote from Ayn Rand is exactly wrong.

"The issue is not whether you give a dime to a beggar. The issue is whether you have a right to exist if you don't."

I don't think there's anyone suggesting that by not giving, a person doesn't have the right to exist. The issue is whether to give a dime to a beggar or not.

I think that particular issue is more complex than it seems. Whether to give might not depend so much on a particular person or group's neediness but on what is the best thing to do. What is the best use of resources? Calling America "stingy" suggests that some people very strongly think America isn't making the best use of resources and the best use is "obvious" enough that not acting on it warrants some nastiness. I don't happen to agree with the attitude of the critics. It is not obvious how much money, if any, should be given toward Tsunami victims. Money given in relief efforts doesn't always make it to the victims, and the victims don't always make the best use of it. The more given, the more important it is to carefully assess the best possible use of money. It seems to me that America is doing just that.

Saturday, January 8

Goodwill vs. Duty

I particularly liked this response to the UN criticisms about America's "stinginess".

The issue was stated most succinctly by Ayn Rand when she said, "The issue is not whether you give a dime to a beggar. The issue is whether you have a right to exist if you don't."

[...] If you have a right to exist for your own sake--if an individual's own happiness is the proper moral purpose of his existence--then charity is necessarily a secondary issue. The primary is that you work to achieve your own goals, and you help strangers only out of your surplus time, effort, and money--the surplus left over after you have achieved your own most important goals. And if you choose to give, the recipient owes you at least a "thank you"; this is his recognition that you did not have to help him but chose to do so out of good will, and that he owes you good will in return.


Friday, January 7

Tsunami

I've been enjoying checking Amazon daily to see where the donations stand. When I first saw a post mentioning that $100,000 (US) had been raised and had climbed to $300,000 in a matter of hours, I checked the link and the donations were around $500,000 (US). Today, there have been 183,519 payments that total $14,914,513.04. That's higher than the amounts offered by some governments.


Blogger Anders Jacobson has issued an interesting offer:

Whether you give money, time or whether you decide to share your link-power; if you create a post on your weblog front page or create permanent links in your blogroll and link to the below organizations, then link to my blog and this posting, I will pay US$ 1 to the British Red Cross. I will visit/verify any blog trackbacking this post or showing up Technorati the next two weeks and donate accordingly.


International aid organizations:
UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund)
United Nations' World Food Programme
Medecins Sans Frontieres / Doctors without Borders (donate!)
CARE International
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies

UK/Europe:
Disasters Emergency Comittee (DEC) - comprises a raft of aid agencies, including the below and others
British Red Cross
Oxfam
Save the Children UK

North America:
American Red Cross
Canadian Red Cross
Save The Children
Oxfam America

Anders Jacobsen: Webloggers: Give to tsunami victims and I'll give too!

Some other people have offered to match this challenge.

Wednesday, January 5

Brain in a Dish - more from CogNews

UF SCIENTIST: “BRAIN” IN A DISH ACTS AS AUTOPILOT, LIVING COMPUTER Wow! In summary, a small mass of brain matter from a rat has learned to fly a simulated plane sucessfully. I hadn't realized just how much progress had been made in computer and cognitive science. It never occurred to me to do such a thing or that it could be made to work.

It reminds me of something from Star Trek: Voyager. The ship's computer was made partly from "gel packs that contain bioneural cells that organize information more efficiently and speed up response time" (see Bioneural circuitry.

Brain Busting and Causation

I love finding out I'm wrong. It's not that I like being wrong. It can be very painful and difficult sometimes to find out that I've unintentionally caused pain or harm to people (including myself) through my lack of knowledge. It's just that finding out I'm wrong is the first step toward having a better understanding of what's right and good. I think, in some ways, I most like finding out that my whole system of thought is based on some wrong ideas. I think a fundamental and yet wrong idea can be a huge source of ignorance (see Conjectures and Refutations).

I was thinking that shaking up a fundamental idea can be a brain busting experience. It can be a relief to start from scratch and try to come up with a better system of thought. In practice, though, it can be difficult to do. Your brain doesn't just dump all your old ideas because a new one came along. It keeps coming up with old yucky ones that you thought you'd long forgotten. Then again, someday, you'll find a new brain buster such that those old ideas become useful again. Maybe it's better to get rid of them anyways, though, because it can be great fun to learn them again.

A recent potential brain buster for me was thinking about causation. A cause is that which produces or effects a result; that from which anything proceeds, and without which it would not exist. I had assumed that the axioms put forth by Objectivism were true. I didn't think that they were absolutes that weren't open to criticism, but I thought they were likely true and it was hard to conceive of how they wouldn't be true. The axioms are: (1)Existence Exists (2) Existence is Identity (existents have attributes) (3)Consciousness (that you have the ability to perceive reality). Supposedly axiom 2 implies that the Law of Causality is true: "thing's actions are determined not by chance, but by its nature, i.e., by what it is".

I had assumed it was "true" and necessary for things to make sense that some things necessarily "cause" others or that there is some chain of events that started with some event. It was pointed out to me, though, that there are criticisms of these ideas and that there might be better ways of thinking about reality than using "causality" as part of one's conceptual framework. I haven't analyzed the criticisms and alternatives well enough to decide what I think about it, but I'm sure that whatever I end up thinking, it will be a better understanding of reality than I had before.