Sunday, September 28, 2014

Intermission #3 - A Summary of My DNA analysis from the National Geographic "Genographic Project"

I chose to participate in the National Geographic, "Genographic Project" for several reasons.  First, I was and am curious about everything, so this was just one more THING to wonder about and learn about, both how the process would work and what information about myself I may uncover.  Secondly, while I was pretty certain that my pre-American ancestors were from Germany (paternally) and South Eastern Europe (maternally), there were some inconsistent stories and even interesting physical attributes that brought some of this vague understanding into question.  People in America, often talk about their European, Asian or African heritage (even if their family immigrated to the US generations ago) as part of their personal identity.  When these guessing games would start, many people would guess that I was either "Italian", "Greek" or "Jewish" due in part I suppose to certain stereotypical physical characteristics.  (My large nose and ease with which I tan included)  Lastly, most non-Africans have some non-human DNA remnants from either or both the Neanderthal or Denisovan species, due to inbreeding during the largest waves of human emigration from Africa and into Asia and Europe between 50,000 and 70,000 years ago.  I was therefore curious as to how "human" I am.

It is very important to understand the verbiage of this analysis.  Nowhere can or does this DNA analysis say that a person is X% one or another ethnicity, but rather it compares my DNA samples to those of sample found in migrating groups and in current world populations and is an active and ongoing project to determine how patterns in DNA changed as humans migrated out of Africa and spread across the world.  The language used to describe specific points of understand is precise and is meant to be so.

So anyway, here is what I learned:

(1) The average person with European migratory ancestry has about 2.1% Neanderthal DNA.  I happen to have 1.6%.  The average Euro-Asian has about 2% Denisovan DNA and I have 1.0%. Oddly, that makes me slightly more "human" than most of the people reading this blog post, other than Africans or direct disendants of Africans who happen to be the only people on the planet that are in fact 100% human.

(2) When compared to samples gathered from around the globe, my DNA fits a pattern of migration that includes 41% Northern Europe (density center in Northern Germany), 40% Mediterranean (density center in Northern Greece and Serbia), 18% South West Asian (density center in Persia a.k.a. Iran).

(3)  The modern country with the most people with similar Paternal DNA patterns is Germany (no suprise there, given what I've been told).  The modern country with the most people with similar Maternal DNA patterns is Romania.  Not far off from what I have been told, but a bit more Southern and Asiatic than I was led to believe (no worries).

(4) Weirdly, the country with the most people who have the same combination of my Paternal and Maternal DNA pattern is Ireland even though no one in my family has ever claimed to have relatives in Ireland.  I guess many of my German-Romanian ancestors got stuck in a pub in Ireland on their way to the US and never left.  Probably due to the Guinness.

 In the end this little experiment both added to the library of migratory knowledge about our species and gave me something interesting to read.  The fact is, that ALL of our ancestors can be genetically traced to a very small, common group of people in Africa who were the very first "us".  The rest of the migratory stories are just as interesting and varied as is eye, skin and hair color.

Personally, I found it interesting that my grand parents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents were able to pass along both an oral history of "where we were from" as well as a chemical history and in my case the two matched pretty closely.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Reflection # 9 - Listing the Sources of Your Attachments

It may seem that with this post I am on a "Buddhism" kick.  I do find a lot of interesting things about Eastern Religions (as I do with Western ones) and as Albert Einstein admitted, as we progress as a society in science, math, philosophy and psychology, Buddhism seems to have the greatest chance of surviving.  I think that is mostly due to the fact that it started out as a non-mystical, non-theistic life philosophy and therefore many of its core ideas do not require a departure from rational thought or an expression of faith.  I have studied Buddhism now for at least 30 years, so this is no fad for me.

One of the main focal points for Buddhists is the ending of suffering, to include most importantly, our own personal suffering.  The Buddha, we are told, discovered that suffering comes from attachment to material things, social norms and cultural devices as well as personal expectations of ourselves and each other.  By stripping yourself of all attachments, you will end your own suffering and then be free to help reduce or end the suffering of other humans and sentient beings in general.

A few weeks ago, I did an exercise of personal reflection and wrote down the things that I am attached to.  I modified the scope of attachment to include broad categories or more of the things in my mind or thinking or socialization that drove the various attachments, not necessarily the material items (like a house, job, family, money) - rather I chose to try and work at a deeper more fundamental level.

Warning - Digression:  I like listing things and I like scratching things off of lists that are not base or fundamental enough.  I find that this practice helps me in many areas of my life.

Anyway, I would like to challenge you to make your own list.  Review it, contemplate it, refine it and see if, how and when the things on your list interfere with your happiness, success and overall feeling of peace and contentment. It is just a little homework, nothing to be afraid of.

Things that Drive My Attachments:

My Neurosis: narcissistic, anxious, depressed 
My Desires/Addictions: alcohol, sex, leisure time, food
Seeking Acceptance: wanting unconditional love, feeling insecure, wanting to be understood 
My Persona: tough, smart, funny, experienced
My Guilt: for past acts, both the significantly terrible and the minor transgressions
My Fear: of failure and the of not providing for myself and others, financially and emotionally 
Wanting to be unique: standout, different, “a character”, remembered, even mystical/other worldly
My Hatred: of the fact that things are imperfect Concept versus Reality (Weltschmerz)
My Career: control, money, sense of accomplishment
Wondering what people truly think of me, my behaviors and my intentions, beyond my “persona”

This list is VERY personal and a few people may think that I am over sharing here, however that is the power of writing these things down.  They are real, they are known by yourself and others and they do in fact have the power to inhibit your true sense of peace and happiness, especially if you can not or will not acknowledge them.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

A Return to Writing After My Surgery - Three Topics to Explore and Hey - I gained an insight the other day !

Most of my (limited) group of readers know that I had some significant surgery on July 28th and it has taken me this long to recover enough to be interested in writing again.

This post may seem a bit redundant to my last one, but since time has passed, I think that it might make sense to repeat a few things and add some color commentary.

On a side note, looking at the statistics for readership there are some folks in Eastern Europe and Western Asia that read this blog.  Now, I do not know if they are different people who are just browsing the blogger site or if I actually have fans in Russia, Turkey and other West Asian countries.  If so, please send me a note or comment, I'd like to hear from you.

In my last post back on July 19th, I discussed the possibility of at least three future topics:

(1) How does morality and ethics play out in a pre-determined, atheist worldview?
(2) Why not "just give up" if everything is pre-determined?
(3) Attachment vs Happiness, do Eastern Philosophies know something that we don't?

Toward the 3rd topic I have been (slowly) reading a book titled, "The Book of Not Knowing" by Peter Ralston.  It is a fun book for me to read, as he is attempting to walk the reader through the Eastern process of cleansing yourself of your "made up self" in order to discover your "real self".  This idea that we are mostly what we have been told, taught and think about versus what we "really are" has always gotten my neurons firing, so I am enjoying the read.

This brings me to the insight that I gained the other day whilst reading this particular book.  In it he is trying to offer a variety of analogies to explain to the reader the mechanics of how humans develop their sense, view and concept of the society, culture, world and self.

To summarize, he noted that if you watch a kitten (or kittens) play, they chase, fight, run and jump during their play.  These skills are necessary for cats in order for them to both hunt for food and defend themselves.  Adult cats also seem to enjoy play and while they do it less often, it would appear that their play helps them maintain these important survival skills. 

If you watch a child or children play, they often play "pretend".  They can imagine that a shoe box is a boat and grandma's floor is the ocean.  If you interrupt their play, they return to the "real world" of mommy and daddy (sometimes unhappily) and therefore demonstrate that they are not hallucinating or psychotic per se', however why do they play pretend?  In fact why do adults fantasize?  It might be that kids (and even adults) are "practicing some skills" that are required for success and as adults these skills may need maintenance, just like in adult cats.  Those skills (playing pretend) would most aptly be defined as creating our worldview, our sense of self and our persona as an individual human.  There is nothing fundamentally real about "who we are" other than the molecules that make up our current state of mass.  Everything that we believe about ourselves is created in our minds.  Tall, short, skinny, fat, pretty, ugly, smart, dumb, funny, boring, confident, shy are all constructs that we have made up - often with the help of our familes, friends and society in general.

I thought that this explaination was cool and it stuck with me as being important to ponder and incorporate into how I think about myself and other people.

This made me wonder about a thought experiment whereby you would take a fresh new human and attempt to remove all forms of feedback from them regarding their behavior, gender, intelligence, attractiveness and social "fit".  What would you end up with?  My first thought (like most parents or even non-parent adults who can't stand feral children) is that you'd have a "caveman".  Then I wondered two more things.  Would you REALLY have a "caveman" child if they received ZERO feedbac?  I often find that some of the most irritating children that I run across receive all sorts of feedback and most of it is conflicting or non-specific, in other words, chaotic.  The second thought was that whichever outcome on the spectrum of caveman to shy polite and calm (which actual cave people were more apt to be like, based on what we know of ancient humans), the child WOULD possibly reflect what "real" humans are like, deep down inside all of us, under all of our trappings and manners and pretense.  I think that would be an interesting thing to know!

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Relection #8 - So am I done?

After attempting to give a summation of how my belief system has matured and for the most part settled in over 50 years of life, the next question is "where do I go from here?"

It is obviously difficult to really put into a few hundred words all of the events, thoughts and the reflections on those events and thoughts that make up a person's mindset.  I felt the desire to get something down on paper and I did that in these last several posts.

Now, I just continue on reading, thinking, reflecting and learning.  This work will most likely result in a simple refining of my current worldview, but there is always the possibility that I could completely change my views, in time - who knows?  Like I say in my tag line, this Blog is About Me and For Me, so my narcissistic approach to writing it is intentional.

One thing that I have tried to convince myself of is the concept of "good enough".  For some reason or another (poor nurturing, too much nurturing or some mental or emotional defect), sometimes I just can't let things be.  I have very little problem with letting go of things that OTHER people do, but I often can't let go of the imperfect things that I do.

Sometimes these things are material, like the three slabs (out of 144) that drive me nuts on the patio that I built that are not quite right (un-level and awkward) and sometimes these things are emotional, like guilt about how I treated someone wrongly in the past.  While I totally and completely agree with the Buddhist concept that one of the keys to peace is letting go, being able to comprehend something intellectually and being able to actually behave in accordance with what you know is best are often two different things.

So, I think that I need to explore this idea of Attachment v Happiness some more.

Additionally, two things about my belief system that worry other people, but don't bother me at all, are "where do Morality and Ethics fit in?" and "if you think that everything is determined why don't you Give Up?".

I mentioned (briefly) both of these topics in previous posts.  These are fairly interesting and important topics to discuss and while many people have written volumes on them, I am confident that I can express a view of each that doesn't require a 350 page manifesto.

So ........ Am I done?  ...  No chance !!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Intermission #2 - Peas and the Tolerance Spectrum

I have decided to use my hatred for peas as an analog for what I mean when I speak about tolerance and intolerance.
Many things in our Universe appear to be relative and not absolute.  So, just like most things, my hatred for peas is NOT absolute. If it was, I would not likely be able to function in the world, as I encounter peas far more often than I'd like.  So in order to rationally continue on with my life, I occasionally MUST tolerate peas.

This does not mean that I do not hate peas.  I despise their taste, texture, smell, shape and color.  I try my best to avoid peas.  I do not intentionally purchase items with peas in them.  I do not order anything off of a restaurant menu that mentions peas in the description, even if and when I am assured by the wait staff that the peas can be optional (they never are, those little bastards find my plate, they always find my plate).

I have mentioned in other writings that tolerance is not very becoming to a philosophical belief or religious viewpoint, because in the end, most dogma (certainly) and powerful ideas or beliefs (usually) require a large amount of buy-in, in order to be accepted as worthwhile.  Buying into one thing, forces us to exclude others.  That is just the way it is and what logic dictates.

Well then, how much tolerance is too much tolerance?  I don't know.  I only know two things about tolerance: (1) Without Tolerance, existence would be virtually impossible, unless the Universe was in fact only me existing in my mind and (2) With Tolerance our belief systems are diluted, illogical and internally inconsistent.

 Is there something in the way that I manage peas that may help me understand a functioning variety of intolerance?  Maybe I should explore some George-to-pea interaction scenarios to find out.

Avoidance:  To some extent, I find that this strategy takes the most over all energy.  Although the energy spent at any given moment is barely measurable, the total amount of energy that I have spent in my life avoiding peas is quite significant.  I discussed above how I avoid peas, I don't have them in the house, I don't buy them and I am vigilant at restaurants, picnics and other food encounters.  I even risk irritating (at best) and alienating (at worst) those whom I care about the most, in order to employ this strategy effectively.  This strategy seems to work well 99%+ of the time, as it seems now that I reflect on it, I often go weeks on end without encountering peas.

Acknowledge and Separate:  When I run across a pea (and I eventually do), I have to acknowledge it.  I have learned over the years how to quickly separate myself from peas.  Strategies include, plate shielding, mechanical separation (usually with a fork or spoon), napkin hiding and others.  This strategy works when I have let my guard down, but do not have an easy option of running away without losing face.  Although there IS a fine line between separation and avoidance here.  Anyway, I suppose that these seemingly inevitable encounters with peas happen to me a few times per year.  Let's call it less than 1%.

Acknowledge and Ignore:  As much as I hate to admit it, I have been in situations where I am in a weak or compromised state (usually very hungry and tired) and I accidentally allow myself to be exposed to a large, overwhelming horde of peas.  Typically in this state, I first attempt to weigh my avoidance or separation options, only to realize that I either have to go hungry or actually risk eating peas.  Under this scenario, I DO often perform some separation, especially when it is easy and doesn't waste much of the food, but invariably, I end up eating some peas, just out of pure laziness, poor coordination and hunger.  To mask their horrid taste, I make sure to utilize whatever meat or acceptable vegetable items are mixed in with the peas in the best way possible.  Sometimes, I swallow the stew or soup whole to avoid tasting or chewing them altogether.  Now that I am an adult, well fed and financially stable, this scenario RARELY if EVER happens any more.  I find it interesting that a modest amount of wealth, some education, the ability to think clearly and the freedom to act rationally, help me virtually never have an encounter with my most hated food.

Acknowledge and Destroy: I have never actually employed this strategy, but I suppose if I won $100,000,000 in the Lotto, I could waste that money attempting to eradicate peas from the planet.  I am sure that it would take trillions of dollars to make a real dent in the pea population and even then, peas would find their way back.  While this strategy seems ridiculous, irrational and immoral, I find it amazing just how many people, countries, religions and other groups attempt to employ it.  Of all of the strategies, acknowledge and destroy requires the most belief and commitment.  The intensity of feeling, thought and action required to employ this strategy consistently requires an almost brain-washed level of belief in something greater than ourselves or beyond our comprehension.  Those employing this strategy would have to offer up sacred writings and symbols worth dying for*, in order to promote such a high risk - low reward approach to a "problem".  Some people would be compelled to give their own lives for the cause and those people would have to be revered by ALL in order to continue the propagation of the idea that this strategy makes any sense.

Wow, I guess I really don't hate peas that much after all ................

(I wanted to give my readers more credit than this and I apologize to those that find the footnote unnecessary.  I am sorry, but I feared more that the point may be missed by some others)
* ",,,sacred writings and symbols worth dying for." 

    A Book
    An Idea
    A Poem
    A Flag
    An Emblem, Symbol or Relic
    A Person or Vestige
    A Document or Declaration
    A Sacred or Special Piece of Land

Disclaimer:  Any relation that your brain draws between this blog post and recent world events is purely incidental and in fact your damn fault, not mine...... you pea lover!


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Reflection #7 - The Process of Elimination - Part C "Free Will to Determinism"

Simultaneously with the Christian to Agnostic to Atheist evolution, I was going through a Free Will to Deterministic evolution.  This one however, was actually far more emotional and bothersome for several reasons.  The first major stumbling block was that many religious teachings more or less reside on the deterministic side of things and while free will creeps in (in Christianity in the choosing to be saved thing and Buddhism and Hinduism with the Karma thing), the mystical side of those religions talk an awful lot about how things are predetermined, prophesied and "known", so the preponderance of the evidence for any/all/most religions seemed to me to be that things ARE determined.  So there was a religious "taint" on determinism for  me and since I hated religion during most of this time, I allowed that emotion to override my use of logic. 

The second unfortunate thing for me was being born in America and fed the American dream the American ideal, American exceptional-ism, from birth all the way through the Golden Age of Ronald Reagan.  All of these concepts, lies, ideas and myths had one clear thing in common.  You made your own way, your own life, your own wealth = Free Will

As I further developed my method for thinking about these things, I started questioning my assumptions that Determinism had to:
(1) be related in some way to religion or mysticism and
(2) clearly defied common sense and everyday experience

For me, these realizations are probably the most proud achievements of my intellectual life.

Going back a few posts, I mentioned the idea that when you take humans out of the equation, the idea of Free Will seems to carry much less clout.  Most (like 99.9999999999999%) of the stuff in the Universe appear to carry on without any care or influence of Free Will.  It is only the self aware beings that seem to care about or create the illusion of Free Will. Comets and stars and planets and the weather all seem to behave according to Predetermined (or at least Determined) laws of the physical Universe.

When I meditate on the origin and purpose of the Universe, it seems clear that the Universe exists for itself and itself alone.  Whether or not there are multiple universes that exist, whether or not they are similar to, but not exactly like ours (slightly differing physical laws projecting their outcomes over billions of years), or we are a one off - all there ever is and ever will be universe, the unfolding of this Universe is tells us much about the nature of universes  in general.

While we don't, probably can't and never will know everything, we know a lot.  The things we don't know, like the exact, "real" origin of our Universe, actually hold less importance if you look at them through the lens of Determinism.  We are just here, we know mostly how we got here and we know that without any intervention from an extra-universal force, the Universe will last another trillion years or more. 

From what we can make out so far about the Universe, its main "purpose" (which is sadly a personification) seems to be quite simple.  The purpose of the Universe is to continually increase its entropy until it no longer exists.  We don't know or probably can't understand the details of the earliest days, but our Universe clearly started in a state of VERY low entropy and since that time the "physical laws" inherent in this Universe require the average entropy of the Universe to be ever increasing and (most likely) at an increasing rate.  These facts, make it easy to predict that in some very distant future, the entropy of the Universe will be such that all things that we understand to "be" (matter and energy) will no longer exist.  There are questions about the "fabric" of space-time and we don't know what dark matter or dark energy are, HOWEVER through inductive observation, we do know that even these conceptual "things" seem to follow the ever increasing entropy model. 

Therefore, simply put ALL things must be predetermined.  The Universe will unfold as it will and your choice of which socks to wear must be part of that process, no matter how ridiculous that sounds on the surface of it.

Some very smart people argue that there may be a "Planck Scale"* where free will is allowed to take place because those decisions are small enough not to impact any general outcomes that would violate the natural laws and the fate of the whole Universe.  To me, this is just another sophisticated way to trick ourselves into believing that we have some control, it attempts to put the human back into the equation, an equation into which we don't belong.  Our role is clearly spelled out as has been since the beginning.  It is ridiculous to think that while the overall fate of the Universe is predetermined some individual acts are not, simply so we can sleep better at night.

In conclusion:  I am convinced that an Atheistic, Deterministic view of our Universe seems to be the most correct explanation for things, based on the process of elimination.  

FIRST NOTE:  Please realize that I realize that being born in America was like a lotto win, in a messed up world, there are few places as awesome, healthy and safe as the US.

SECOND NOTE:  Sadly our history texts only spent 1, exactly 1 page each on the topic of "Manifest Destiny" that was a popular excuse for our behavior back in the early days of colonial America.  Even back then (5th grade History),  I saw the irony of Free Will Politicians who loved to evoke the "Founders", but never really spent time explaining the paradox of Free Will and Economic Choice with the idea that somehow it was "God's plan" that we almost wipe out an entire race of humans (Indigenous Americans) and exploit abundant and cheap natural resources for personal gain.

Final SIDE NOTE:  If our understanding of the Universe changes dramatically I will be dead and my thoughts on the matter will be absorbed along with the worshipers of Sun Gods and the Flat Earth Crowd, but if you trace back the scientific history of mankind, many fundamental truths were hinted at, poked, prodded and "almost known" quite a way back.  It normally took technology to catch up to thought to shed the most proper light on any given subject.  The ancients believed in atoms, that matter was made up of mostly space and that matter and energy were somehow interchangeable, but until the 1800s, we didn't have ways to show that these ideas were correct.

* Planck Scale is a concept used in Quantum Mechanics to "explain" the border line between the Quantum World and the Macro World.  It is a way of saying, we don't understand how quantum uncertainty collapses into a final state of what REALLY is for large objects.  Large in this case being atoms. 

Reflection #6 - The Process of Elimination - Part B "Christianity to Agnostic to Atheist"

For the first 12 or 13 years of my life I just assumed that there was a god and not only "a" god, but God.  The real one, the father of Jesus and the bad ass that destroyed the whole earth in the flood (save Noah) and rained fire on the LGBT community of Sodom and Gomorrah and gave his own son's life for us puny humans to have forgiveness and everlasting life. 

Much like my belief in Santa Claus, I was ready, able and eager to dismiss that particular god as one of many and the stories of his power and awesomeness as some set of parables and mythology given to us by creative writers who were attempting to explain things that we didn't understand, give us some moral guidance and keep large groups of people from getting out of control and turning our well planned and complex civilization into anarchy.

I was NOT however, willing to give up my "innate sense" that there had to be "something", some purpose, some energy turning the wheel, some god or god-like entity the didn't even have to be very active in the details of my life or things in general, but a prime mover, a final answer, a go-to solid hub or anchor in this seemingly chaotic Universe.

I therefore started to categorize myself as Agnostic.   Basically the belief that there is a higher power, but its existence doesn't really matter to a self aware species on a small blue planet in the middle of nowhere, other than to give us comfort that things aren't as arbitrary as they sometimes seem.  

So for 30 or more years, I lived and thought as an Agnostic.  I bothered to spend a lot of time reading and contemplating the origin and purpose of the Universe.  I read and attempted to understand and internalize numerous books, everything from dumbed-down popular descriptions of scientific and philosophical ideas to some slightly more complex books on those subjects.  Science, Philosophy and Theology were the main categories of my reading.  I also read the Bible from cover to cover (not easy), the Qur'an, some of the Torah, several Hindu texts, a couple of books co-authored by the Dalai Lama and several on Buddhism in general.  I even read biographies and autobiographies of famous philosophers, scientists and the great writers and thinkers of the age of cultured man.   In the years between grad school and "fairly recently", I have likely read over 300 complete texts and another 500 articles or short writings.  All the while, assuming that the question of the existence of some prime force was a given.

Then one day I woke up and just said, "this is silly".  Basically, I decided that being agnostic was the wimp's way out.  I realized, like many people, I was trying to have it both ways.  Too smart to believe in that stupid virgin birth story, but too scared to put my eternal soul on the line and fully commit to non-belief.

There was no clear indication in any of the texts that I studied that the Universe has a fundamental NEED for a god, nor was any EVIDENCE of the existence of such a being, energy, entity, etc.. presented.   I realized that only habit and fear kept me from admitting what I had learned over these years - that there is no god, God or anything.  It was as simple as that.  After expending so much effort on trying to answer the most fundamental questions about the Universe,  all I had to do was to accept the answer.  There is no god.

Let's face it.  There is a lot of stuff written in physics books and most of it is testable and true.  I mean we have airplanes, TV, nuclear bombs and cell phones.  There is a lot of stuff written in religious texts, very little of it is testable and true and as far as I know, God, Moses, Muhammad, Jesus or the Buddha have no impact on my cell phone reception, although sun spots do.  

Monday, June 30, 2014

Intermission #1 "Angry Atheists" Explained

Why do atheists have this rap for being angry?  As much as I try to be a "calm" atheist, it is difficult in a culture permeated by "believers".  If you want to really know why some atheists come off as angry, I have listed a few possible reasons:

(1) Divisiveness: Many people use religion like race or language or skin color or geography.  "WE are right and THEY are wrong and stick with ME and I will deliver YOU from THEM".   It is all there in the "holy" books and "sacred" texts. Read them people, really, actively read them.  No true religion can be tolerant.  True believers can not afford to be tolerant.  Any group that claims tolerance is therefore excluding others who are not tolerant and therefore are themselves intolerant.  I admit that my belief system does not allow for tolerance, however I do not actively pursue injustice, hatred, fear or public harassment toward those with differing beliefs. I would never say however, that I am religiously tolerant.  I believe that I am right and others are wrong.  I will also admit that I allow that belief to occasionally impact my feelings toward other people, but I work hard not to allow my beliefs to impact others in a negative way. 

(2) Manipulation:  As stated in other posts, religion is used every day to manipulate and control the masses.  It is an astounding thing, religion.  A carnival show that has existed since man first started living in groups.  Its the tribal formula.  Each tribe has what?  A figure head, a technologist, a military general and a cleric. They each have their roles to play and the cleric's role is usually that of
"being given from above" the ultimate judgment or the ultimate final word, yet unlike the others who often earn their power the cleric only receives their power through collusion with the leader, the general and sometimes (sadly) the technologist, so it comes as no surprise that the "revelations" they have usually support those in power or those about to seize power.

(3) Widely Accepted, but False Views on Ethics and Morality:  While there is no doubt that some "religious organizations" do help make the world a better place, nothing of what they do that makes a difference is done by God.  It is all done by the PEOPLE within those organizations and could have just as easily have been done by any organized group of humans.  The next argument for morality and ethics assumes that atheists are also amoral.  Don't go there either.  No one requires a belief in a god or the threat of eternal punishment to do good and to be good.  In fact one may argue that if you need the threat of eternal punishment to do good and to be aware of and try your best to avoid evil, then your heart really isn't into it - is it?

(4) Tax Exempt Status

(5) Influencing "Democratic" Governments:  It would be awesome to be able to wield so much power that you could dictate to professional bureaucrats and politicians to legislate things like tax exemptions, the inclusion of your "holy book" in public swearing in and to guilt ALL leadership candidates to publicly ascribe to a religious affiliation out of need.  "No one wants an atheist President", is one of the biggest lies ever told in America.  By all accounts the "great" Ronald Reagan was at most agnostic and likely an atheist, but was able to act the part when required. Many of the founding fathers were not religious, but hypocritically evoked the idea of a higher power, to mostly garner favor from voters and other influence wielders.  I find this "necessity" stunning in our modern era.  Even Barney Frank in a recent interview stated that in many ways, being openly gay was easier from a political standpoint than being an agnostic turned atheist.  I found that surprising.

(6)  The church has the best business model ever:  They offer a product (forgiveness, eternal life without damnation, peace of mind, etc) for a relatively small fee (high volume sales is how they make their living) and no one ever comes back and says that your product is faulty, why?  Because they are dead and the dead keep all secrets. You then claim that you posses infallibility because the almighty revealed such to you.  Things couldn't be more tidy.

(7) Atheists are RARELY given any consideration:  How often are atheists invited to lead memorial services, inter-faith town halls or the annual National Prayer Breakfast?  When NASCAR starts their race with a prayer, is there any consideration for atheists, agnostics, heck for that matter non-Christians of faith?  Why was adding "under God" to the pledge of allegiance in 1954 tolerated by regular, Americans who believed in freedom?  How is it acceptable to ask everyone to swear an oath on a bible in court?  Then force those who take exception to that request to be made to publicly declare their private religious beliefs.

The reason that some atheists feel the need or are compelled to "be angry" is that just like "angry blacks" or "angry feminists", often an emotionally charged PLEA for equality, fairness and understanding is the only way to get any notice of your plight.  Given the statistics on the number of atheists in the US and given the ridiculous amount cow-towing and deference given to religious organizations and religious "leaders", I am shocked at exactly how very few angry atheists there seem to be.

In the end, most atheists don't care what you believe.  We just don't want to see it, feel it or have decisions influenced by it in the public domain. Religion should be a private thing, like your sex life, your toilet habits and your underwear.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reflection #4 - A Defense of Free Will

By now I have proposed a simplistic four-quadrant model of how most people view the Universe and I have dismissed Theism (one half of the model) as being both unnecessary and ill founded, based on far more than the summation of my life's experiences, but rather through hours and hours of disciplined study, thought, sensory experience and reflection.

To dismiss the 3rd of the 4 quadrants requires an exploration of the concept of Free Will.

On the surface, it appears to most people that Free Will is the prime mover of our every day lives.  Why would the Universe care which socks I decide to wear in the morning or whether or not I brush my teeth before or after my shower?  These seemingly inconsequential acts, topically support the idea of Free Will and do so in such an apparently REAL way that most people rarely think about, let alone discuss or debate the existence of Free Will, Choice or our Active Participation in outcomes that impact the space and time around us.  Certainly, we impact the immediate space and time around us, if not much, much more.  Our existence seems to be predicated on a series of events that "brought" us to this current moment and many if not all of these events were so obviously influenced by ourselves, our fore bearers and eons of humans and other life forms before us.

Defending Free Will in a Blog Post seems almost too easy.  The fact that I am writing this blog post and you are reading this blog post certainly cries out that we are both exercising free will.  I am choosing each word to include and which words not to include in this post.  You are choosing whether or not to read these words and you are further choosing how to internalize, contemplate or simply forget them.

Is that REALLY the way that the Universe works?  Can you really choose to forget something?  What motivates me to write anything at all, let alone these particular words?

Most people will say, "shut up, that is just nonsense".  Of course the act of writing a blog post and the act of reading a blog post are fully the result of each of us exercising our Free Will.  Isn't it?

Theistic Free Will:

Theist that also believe in Free Will argue that free will is exactly the magical "thing" that separates us from the "animals" (or in some systems plants or rocks) and allows us to live eternally in the grace of god.  Somehow, god or the gods set everything in motion and planned everything out according to THEIR will, but left just enough room for humans to manipulate their own fate within some magical space, that ultimately determines how our eternal soul or souls (if you believe in re-incarnation) will live and evolve.  Free Will is this wonderful "gift" that god or the gods give us that allow us to make the right choices, build our karmic bank account and either mature to be forgiven and loved eternally or to be damned to an eternity of suffering.

Atheistic Free Will:

Atheists who believe in Free Will, more or less hold the same construct as the Theists mentioned above, other than they leave out the god part.  This consistency with my writings in previous posts is intentional. They believe that there is a space within which humans may act on their own accord and that those actions have little or no impact on the Universe as a whole, even though those actions may have a significant impact on our species, our planet or even our solar system.  Many classical arguments by atheists who believe in Free Will conclude with something like, "It just makes practical sense.  Don't ask me how it works, just know that it works."  Unfortunately for them, that sounds a lot like dogma, religion or faith to me.  They are choosing to believe in common sense or what their senses tell them and not allowing themselves to abandon wrong ideas, simply because the alternative (and possibly correct) ideas feel weird. 

I said this earlier in this post and will say it again.  It is very easy to assume that Free Will not only exists, but is apparent in our every day experience.  Questioning something so obvious seems like a fool's errand.  It is truly difficult to argue that point when I look at life or the Universe from a human's perspective.  Our brains, so powerful and difficult to understand are a true feat of evolutionary engineering which do not cope well with uncertainty and a lack of control.  Two things MUST be true in order for our brains to function normally.  First, time must progress forward and Second, we must have some control over our actions, thoughts and feelings.  Even prisoners in the worse conditions, undergoing torture, rape and other brutality will (if they survive) tell accounts of how they "tricked" themselves (and sometimes their captures) into believing that they had small gaps of time and space where self control, choice and free will still existed.

Such a powerful, innate and obvious thing can not possibly be rationally questioned, can it?

What if we turned the question upside down and instead of starting with our favorite topic - me (I mean us, you for you and me for me, our SELF), we start with the beginning or end of the Universe or even this exact present moment in space and time or space-time.  When we take humans in general and the human mind in particular out of the equation, the need for Free Will starts to rapidly evaporate.   Please think about that for a second or ten.  All the emotion and surety that Free Will exists magically disappears when we talk about the orbit of comets or the mating rituals of birds.  We gladly and easily suspend the entire concept of Free Will when we make these observations.  We don't need Free Will when there is gravity or innate/primal brain behavior going on, so why do we so desperately need to have Free Will in our lives?  Think that over and over and again, one more time. Why?

In my next post I will begin the process of my explanation of why Deterministic Atheism makes the most sense.  Notice that I didn't say it was the right answer, just that of the four quadrants of MY model, I can demonstrate the thought process that I went through that convinced me that the quadrant of my choosing (ironically) is Deterministic Atheism.

That really is a paradox is it not?  I am saying that I "believe" in something unknowable (but that something is atheism) and that I chose to believe it, even though I have no choice (determinism).  For some people, that argument alone would win the day !!

Something that wildly paradoxical must have a grain or two more of truth in it than the others and that is really how I got to this point in my thinking.  I just used the good old process of elimination technique or deductive reasoning or as Sherlock Holmes would say, "...... that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth".  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Reflection #5 - The Process of Elimination - Part A "The Method"

Originally, I had intended on publishing this post as a one single - very long post that would have included what are now Reflections #5, #6 and #7.  I was on a writer's roll and had the ideas all down and much of the grammar and flow just where I liked it, BUT it was too long, so I broke them into the three posts that you see now.  However, I will/did publish them in quick succession for anyone with the interest or stamina to read all of this crap in one go.
I often cry when watching movies.  For those of you that know me, this is not a great personal revelation, it is a fact that I am as comfortable sharing as it is embarrassing to my children.

Why and How do I cry when watching a film?

The short answer is that my brain allows me to disengage my sense of what is "Real" from what is "Imagined" and if the acting and cinematography are good enough, I begin to live in that imagined moment as if it was real.  So, when the sad thing happens near the end (it always does, except in Up when I cried at the start) I cry.  I cry because I am sad and I empathize with a character or characters that the rational part of my brain knows are not real, but since I've turned it off, the same physiology that makes me cry when my favorite pet dies also allows me to cry at that moment in the movie.

So, if I can turn off the rational part of my brain and trick my physical being into acting off of nothing other than my emotional brain, then why can't I also turn off the emotional part of my brain and become super rational?  Well, it turns out that I can. Sometimes I can do it with full intent, purpose and on demand (like when watching a movie or pretending to be angry with a customer service representative on the phone) and sometimes it just happens (like in an adrenaline filled, emergency situation when my emotions shut down and my rational brain gets going full tilt).

I am not saying that I can ALWAYS choose to turn one or the other of my brain functions on or off, I am saying that with practice and effort I can do it and under some circumstances it is easier to do (a dark theatre with a big screen and loud surround sound or when helping car crash victims on the highway) then at other times.

By using the technique of high and low emotional and high and low rational thought at various intensity levels, I have spent many hours alone, often in dark and quiet places, thinking about the Universe, its origin, its purpose and which theories of why were are here and what the future might hold seem to best fit the results of my seemingly endless pondering.

At some point in time, fairly recently, but not within the last 5 years, I came across a method of reasoning that included both using the process of elimination (something that I have been familiar with for most of my life) and pondering questions both on a fully emotional and then later a fully rational level to arrive at "the best/right answers".

If someone had approached me years ago with a four quadrant model and said pick one and only one quadrant, I would have struggled with two things.  The first thing would have been my "confidence" in identifying myself as Atheist vs Theist.  As an Agnostic for most of my life I would have had to be honest and claim "Theist".  Secondly, I would have DEFINITELY picked the "Free Will" side of the box, regardless of how I handled the 50/50 aspect of the god thing.  While my move from Christian to Agnostic to Atheist was relatively steady and consistent over many years, it has only been recently that I have accepted the idea that Free Will is an illusion and that our Universe must be one of predetermined fates.  That change of thought was more of a cliff event than a gradual shift.

In the end, things changed for me in a big way, once I organized my thoughts and committed to the conclusion regarding the lack of a higher power and the idea of determinism. 

Monday, June 23, 2014

Reflection #3 - Defending Theism

It is equally likely that you appreciate my writing style as it is that you find it tedious.  I would apologize, however, I write the way I write and at this point we are stuck with it.  I tend to make one or two salient points per post and in my defense, I try to keep them relatively short (given the gravity of the subject matter).  However, I do wonder off on tangents, stray thoughts and the occasional rant in each post and if that scares you off, I am truly sorry.  Not sorry that I wrote and published the material, but sorry that I scared you off.

One of the most widely used methods for discussing alternative points of view of the Universe is for the writer to attempt to defend opinions counter to their actual belief or thesis.  I employ this method throughout my life and my writings, so hopefully, if you're keeping up, I won't have to mention this again.

I completely understand why religion exists.  I truly do!  In fact it may be this strong, empathic, yet confident belief that I understand the why of it, that makes me an Atheist.  

It is understandable why people created religion.  While I believe that a god is not necessary, fate is too unsettling of an idea for many people to grapple with.  God can be man's ultimate coping mechanism and eternal scape goat.  With a god in the picture, all things are truly and in fact possible.  Beauty, hatred, art, science, lies, theft, immortality, non-existence, decay, rebirth, war, famine, disease, pleasure, abundance, suffering, winning, losing - ALL of the exact same things that fate, luck, randomness or chance can bring us, may also exist in a Universe created, directed or influenced by a god.  A god just makes it all so much easier to understand and deal with.

The existence of a god gives us an explanation free from the confines of consistency and logic and therefore a god is indeed all powerful since the answers are all neatly packaged and available to us through the revelation of his will, or word or commandments. 

I think that all we really need to do to cope is to accept "because" or "it is what it is", but that is a very difficult ask.  It has taken a long time and a lot of soul searching (ironically) for me to get there and so I try very hard not to look down on anyone who wishes to believe in a different explanation. 

May people (many that I love and respect, in fact) opt to explain things as "the will of God" or a "mystery that will be revealed one day".  A magic hand that starts it all and guides it forward.

So, my defense of theism is an empathetic walk in the theist's shoes.  I totally get it.  Belief and Faith are comforting, they are a way to cope and there are even times when our brains respond to the glory of it all.  I know THAT feeling.  I was "saved" once.  I was committed to Jesus and baptized "after receiving the holy spirit".  I strongly desired to believe in what everyone around me believed.  All of those feelings are real and formidable.  You can get a rush from faith.

Unfortunately, I discovered that those beliefs and feelings are ungrounded and ill founded.  What is worse, history tells us that religion is sometimes used to manipulate the masses, pawn off blame and escape accountability.  It can truly be said that belief in an untestable, unknowable dogma is just ANOTHER way to divide us and allow the privileged few to dominate the underprivileged many.

So while the existence of Spirituality seems to be a common aspect of the human mind and some argue that ritualistic or spiritual practices are harmless and even helpful for some people in some circumstances, religion and the requirement to not only believe in a deity, but to give yourself over to other people's interpretations of that deity's will is not only dangerous and destructive to the individual (you are evil, you are nothing, you are an instrument, you are not worthy), but possibly destructive to our species.  I do not think that I have to illuminate the impact of theism on the course of human history.  It is pervasive and dominate, especially during times of war and crisis, if not a contributor to war and crisis.

I often wonder how we would handle our problems (big and small, family and global), if we all suddenly grasp that fact that we have one life to live, one planet to live it on and that the clock is ticking.  I find that even my life and my behavior have not changed as much as I'd like after coming to that understanding and firmly planting it into my mind.  I think that it will take generations of understanding to undo what has been done over the last several thousand years of theistic dominance.

I believe that there is a VERY fine line between atheists and theists.  Both systems see the Universe in almost the exact same way.  It can all be boiled down to Cause and Effect.  It is vividly clear (to humans who evolved survival mechanisms predicated on grasping the concept of cause and effect) that this is how the Universe must operate.  A steady flow of cause and effect, eternally increasing entropy, our minds and senses colluding to create the illusion of time, etc.. are all the by products of our evolution.  The only difference is that one mental map chooses to employ a deity to explain the origin of things, phenomena that we have not yet figured out (or may never figure out) and to explain things that are illogical, seemingly inconsistent or mystical to our limited sensory powers.  The other mental map chooses to work methodically and slowly to explain these things or admit that they are simply unknown or unknowable.  No god needed, but cause and effect, real or imagined, are still in play.

Simply put, you can hold a fridge magnet close to the fridge and FEEL the tug of the magnetic field that is trying to pull the fridge toward the magnet and the magnet toward the fridge.  You can even let go of the magnet and it will appear to "fly" toward the fridge, seemingly defying that other invisible force that you are familiar with that makes things drop to the ground.  You can choose to call this phenomena magic or the will of god or electromagnetism.  Frankly, there isn't much more known about magnetism than there is about the will of god, however a really smart person named James Maxwell was able to describe how this invisible field behaves, using mathematics.  I have yet to see someone put the will of god into a mathematical equation that is reliable, testable and which can be used to expand human understanding and be a launching point for further discoveries.  Without this descriptive understanding (we still don't fully comprehend what fields are or how they come into being, just how they work and relate to other invisible phenomena) this posting would not be possible, nor would your microwave or your cell phone or any of your favorite gadgets. There is no theistic revelation or religious text that I am familiar with that discusses field theory.  Why?  Because it wasn't yet discovered when most of the more popular religious texts and "revelations" were written.

So maybe a true test of  the "revealed word of god" (any god, you pick one) should first include something testable and tangible about the Universe that hasn't already been thought of or discovered.  Each text that I have read clearly redefines and refines that thoughts of the day and the age in which the text was written.  While some interesting twists and new philosophical ideas may be presented, nothing truly new, in the way of understanding, exists in these religious texts.  I find that odd.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Reflection #2 How it all Started

I occasionally recount the story about "getting kicked out of Sunday school" when I was 10 or 11 years old.  Often the telling of this tale starts when someone asks me, "how did you become an atheist?".  In the interest of full disclosure, I have embellished the story a bit (what good story doesn't require some embellishment) in order to drive home the point.  I wasn't literally kicked out of Sunday school, although my teacher chose to end the class early and talk to me, my parents and the church's lead minister about my behavior.  That behavior was simply me, asking questions.  I can't recall exactly which questions I had asked over the course of several lessons, but they all dealt with the lack of logic of the stories being told and their irrelevance to modern life.  Being frustrated that I was both interrupting the lesson and asking questions that she couldn't answer, my poor volunteer teacher was seeking immediate help - from me.  The solution was that I was allowed to skip the remaining set of "children's" Sunday school classes and attend the "adult" ones, where I was "allowed" to ask one question per class.  As you can imagine, like taking only one photo per day (Jim Brandenburg style), I had to learn patience and develop a keen sense as to what question to ask and when to ask it, in order to get the biggest bang for my buck.  Soon, I got bored and stopped attending altogether.  My main concern was that if there was a God and if he created me, then he also created my brain, my curious nature and the desire to have my questions answered, so why was it so "bad" (I was 11, so I didn't choose the proper word, "threatening") for a kid to ask questions about the Bible?  I was sure that it was God's will to have me there at that time and place, asking those questions - but it seemed to some people that Satan himself hand delivered me to the church each and every Sunday at 9 am to mess things up.

The fundamental problem really wasn't the stories and their irrelevance to modern life (although those factors made them seem silly), but as I read more and learned more about other cultures and other mythologies, I realized that the main point of these writings was an attempt to use allegory to teach people how to have empathy for the human condition and to prize love and happiness over materialism.  I could deal with THAT, what drove me nuts was the mysticism and faith that every religion in the world seemed to require, that went above and beyond the story telling and teaching and entered the realm of fantasy.  DANGEROUS fantasy.

It strikes me as sad and ironic that some religious leaders today (and in the past) have railed against "modern thought" and "rock music" and "television" and "violent video games" as being the causes of "the fabric of our society being ripped away".  School shootings MUST be due to video games, the internet and rap music......  They make claims like, "we are desensitizing our youth to violence and obliterating their innate respect for other humans...blah blah blah".  Have they read the Bible (especially the Old Testament)?  Have they read the Koran?  Have more kids been killed due to any scientifically proven link between video games and school violence OR have more been killed in the name of Christianity, Islam or even, dare I say it "Freedom and Democracy"?  I know that we all know the answer to that question.

Strangely, some of these same "leaders" are against abortion under the concept of "the sanctity of human life", but have no problem with capital punishment, believe that any gun control is evil and can sleep at night after sending other people's children over seas (sometimes ill-equipped), to fight wars that by most expert accounts have no actual connection to improving our nation's security.

Yes, I would be the first to agree that anyone can find examples of corrupt, philosophically inconsistent and morally bankrupt atheists.  So what?  My main point is that there is no room in dogma for asking questions and THAT is a potential source of danger and ruin to any culture. 

So, if you refer to my four-quadrant model from my previous post, you may correctly assume that I have lopped off the theist quads like Ned Stark's head, when it comes to my belief system.  While you'd be correct, I think that it is important to walk you through the process that took me from asking questions in Sunday school to abandoning the notion of any higher power at all.  The next few posts will have me recounting that walk and the insights that I have had along the way.  My method is not a new one, it has been used for thousands of years by people much more creative and intelligent than me.  Simply put, I try to make arguments in favor of my once current/former belief system, then dissect them, dismantle them and move forward.  The result is always a better understanding, but not always THE ultimate understanding.

It will start with my next post, "Defending Theism".

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Reflection #1 - Why the blog name, "It Just is What It is"?

There are as many variations on the meaning of existence as there are variations of people who have lived and thought.  It is even possible that some other creatures on earth, now or in the past and certainly on other planets are, have been or will one day be self aware.

With self awareness comes many advantages and disadvantages.  Typically, it would seem, that the advantages at least slightly outweigh the disadvantages, since the human species has been pretty successful in maintaining itself for a few million years.  Of course we are very far from the record setters here, many other species have survived and thrived for tens or even hundreds of millions of years, but you get my point. 

These are all themes that will re-emerge in coming reflections, but please allow me to return to the topic at hand.  Why do I find the saying, "It just is what it is" so appealing?  It starts with the premise that there are really only two camps of thinkers with regard to the questions surrounding the meaning, purpose and origins of our species, the Universe or life in general.  While both camps enjoy wide diversity in thought, belief and geography they do share one of two common ideas.

The first group believes in Free Will.  While they may differ in their understanding or belief in the origin and purpose of life, they all agree that life exists as a RESULT of some series of forces or actions that must have been taken purposefully by intelligent beings and that we as humans also have the ability to make decisions that impact our lives and the lives of others in the present and in the future.  This group includes males, females, all races, all colors, it includes atheists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and just about all varieties of believers and non-believers around the globe.

The second group believes that all things in the Universe are predetermined.  These folks believe that the Universe was somehow set in motion and that if we simply knew all of the rules and could comprehend all of the chess pieces, we could not only predict the future, but understand any and all questions that could ever be asked.  Most people who believe in this basic idea of determinism DON'T give up on living, don't have higher rates of suicide (some studies suggest just the opposite) and don't feel that "things don't matter", because to them a determined future is not much different than, well, normal daily life.  To deterministic thinkers, the Universe is not a cruel game being played UPON us, but rather an interactive play that we get to participate in and possibly see how it turns out.  Think of the Universe unfolding like a really good book or the best movie ever made.  You couldn't put that book down or turn that movie off, could you?  You are fully aware that the end is already written and that each character in the play already has their history etched in the book's pages or the movie's plot, but you don't care.  You keep reading and watching, its just too good to not try and see how much you can figure out about the plot, before your character leaves the stage.  This group includes males, females, all races, all colors, it includes atheists, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews and just about all varieties of believers and non-believers around the globe.  Yes - I just literally copied and pasted that last sentence from the paragraph above, because it is true.

These two camps are the two most common ways that humans can think of the Universe, but not necessarily the only two ways that the Universe can in fact be....
Please take a minute, re-read that last sentence a couple of times , then stop reading and think about it for a few moments.

To me there is a four quadrant model that helps describe this way of thinking about the Universe.  

So after years of contemplation, study, discussion, reading, meditation, writing and obsessing, I can say two things with conviction.  First that my thinking falls into the Deterministic camp.  Second that human beings, our world and our Universe are just what they are.  There is no complete understanding, I don't get to see the end of the play, only the small part that I am in and try to gather clues and hints about the plot and the outcome, but without ever really knowing, because I don't believe that I will be there at the end. (although some religious determinists do) 

This understanding doesn't bother me, "it just is what it is".

Monday, June 9, 2014

Reflections of an Aging Skeptic

I have RE-Ignited my blog.  Once upon a time my blog was all about complaining in a satirical way about fellow humans and our world in general.  Of course, as some of you fondly remember, there was also the porn poetry.  Then I got political, still mostly complaining, but sometimes offering solutions.  I will be publishing two draft posts that I never published in 2011, they offer some interesting historical if not hysterical perspective.

Meanwhile, the past 18 months have been somewhat trans-formative for me, so that is what I wish to write about now.

I always joked that "turning 50" would be a big event for me, but I never really took that alleged milestone seriously or believed in some sort of late stage mid life crisis or any of the other crap that you hear about aging, baby boomer syndrome, etc... I have, however, spent most of my life making sure that I paid attention to what is going on around me, inside my head and wondering what is going on inside the heads of others. Being introspective has always been a big part of who I am. In addition to introspection, I have always been curious about "the natural world", the "universe" and human behavior. As I have aged, I find myself learning more and more how to live in the present (some would call this mindfulness) and considering sights, sounds, smells, tastes, fears, worries, elation and all sensory and emotional states with an almost detached curiosity and observing them in an empirical way. The result of all of this has been a LIFETIME of learning, observing, tweaking my viewpoints and modifying my behaviors in a VERY purposeful way. Not with any particular end in mind, but rather a general goal or idea of seeking comfort and peace with who I am and how I relate to the Universe as a whole. In the last 12 months, these somewhat mental, subtle and to some people "odd" practices have culminated in a bit of a peaking out for me. Peaking in a good way.

I feel that I have reached something or somewhere in my life and for brief periods of time, I have felt contentment, peace and joy.

Now, before I go on, I can not say that I have had a bad life.  In fact, I often tell people that I laugh out loud thinking of how lucky I have been on a macro scale.  Strangely, this acknowledgement of my good fortune was always an intellectual process, one of reason and comparison and doing the math.  I was usually fed, sheltered and managed to stay out of harm's way.  Yes I have had some physical and mental damage from incidents, accidents and the malfeasance of others, but other than a few tidy physical and emotion scars, I think that I've had it better off than at least 75% of the world, I am still alive and in pretty good health, I have reproduced, raised kids and have strong interpersonal relationships with a small, but excellent group of people. I am loved and am able to love others in return.  So "rationally", I was always confident in saying that I was lucky.

Emotionally, well ..... that's different isn't it?  The old roller coaster ride (at least for me) with a much wider range of emotions than any rational being should have.  You know them all, love, lust, hunger, thirst, anger, hatred, fear, worry, happiness, peace, contentment, depression, sadness, lonliness..... and the worst one of all, self pity.

What has changed or matured or ripened in me these last several months?

I hope to elaborate on my path and my discoveries in future posts, but there are some hints in the physical world that are both events totally outside of my realm of control or where purposeful mindset or physical alterations to my landscape, all of which have occurred within the last year:

I drove a race car 159 miles an hour on a race track
I turned 50
I became a grandfather
I taught myself how to love running again
I lost 50 pounds

I've made new friends, tried new things
I parted ways with old acquaintances, but kept some old habits
I started a new business venture and re-energized an existing one
I forced myself to consciously let go of things (and not because I watched Frozen)

In future posts, I hope to weave these events and others into a thoughtful prose on life from my viewpoint and the path that I found through living, while embracing who I was, am and will be.

Amor Fati - Love your fate !!

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Democracy - What is it and do we live in one?

I drafted this post back in 2011, but never published it.... warning, I may contradict myself.

My favorite on line dictionary describes a democracy as, "a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them, directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually determined by periodic free elections"; "rule of the majority".

Most people that you speak with inside the United States would say that we live in a democracy and if you ask them, "well, how do you know that?", they will usually speak to elections and something about freedom or the democratic process. When ask to define freedom, most say something about freedom to "do what I want".

I find both the online definition and the "common" person on the street definition of democracy intriguing, since at even the most mundane level of scrutiny would suggest that we do NOT live in a democracy.

Lets break it down:

Supreme Power Vested in the People - While we may believe this to be the case, I ask you to think about where the supreme power in our "system" resides? Do the people have more power than say corporations or banks? More power than the political parties themselves? How long would "the people" survive on their own if there was an uprising that ran counter to what the established commercial-government enterprise felt was reasonable? I don't have any clear answers to these questions, but I think the questions themselves beg us to think about it a bit.

AND Exercised by Them - only 50% of eligible voters vote at all in their lifetime and typically less than 33% vote in all/most elections to which they are entitled. Fewer than 5% of Americans have ever visited Washington DC. while 15% have visited one of the Disney parks. 73% of Americans can not name the 3 branches of government. Only 25% of Americans know the names of their Congressman and Senators. Less than 10% of Americans have ever written a letter to an elected official, posted an editorial in a newspaper or urged an elected representative to vote for or against a specific piece of legislation.

A System of Representation (via) Free Elections - There are only two political parties that consistently deliver "electable" people. How free is that? How involved are "the people" in the down selection process and once there is a down selection to two (or sometimes three) candidates, is that a free and open election? How much money does it cost to run for Congress? How is it that 13 Presidents (both parties) attended an Ivy League University, including the last 4 in a row?

Freedom to "do what I want" - There is no freedom to "do what you want" guarrenteed in the Constitution. I think what people mean is that there is a significant amount of freedom to move about and carry on with your "normal daily business". Well, I hate to tell you all, but that very same freedom pretty much exists in ALL countries. No government has the resources to monitor all of their people and the appearance of freedom to "live" exists in most places, even if you hate the government. Nazi Germany and other regimes that participate in genocide would be the glaring exception, but again sadly, only for those that are targeted.

Majority Rules - Ahhh, this is a favorite of mine. If the majority really ruled, then why would the wealthiest 1% pay little or no taxes in this country? If the majority really ruled, why wouldn't all elected officials, CEOs and Religious Leaders be women? After all women are in the majority.... If the majority ruled why wouldn't pot be legal? If the majority ruled, why would there be such a problem with education, when most people believe that an excellent education is something that government should be obligated to provide? If the majority ruled then why isn't there government subsidized/socialized/Obama-care in place? 55% say that they want it and 35% need it.

Either there are forces at work that are blinding us to the fact that we do NOT live in a democracy OR "the people", being so stupid, lazy and apathetic have turned their democracy over to others, so as not to be burdened with the work of freedom......

What about Socialism vs. Democracy? - The fact is that we are a socialist society.  By definition we build roads, schools and fund the military through a combined group effort.  Some right wing politicos through around the "S - word" like it is a bad thing, but they themselves benefit from government funded (yours and mine tax dollars) pay, medical care and retirement.  Anytime a politician uses the word socialism, pause and think ....  Technically, we and all of our Western Allies (I am sure that term makes the Japanese, the Australians and others very pleased) are Socialist Democracies (of a sort) in that we elect our officials AND we all at one time or another make use of governmental services, making us all "socialists" !!!

My Reflections on 9/11 - Ten Years Gone

I drafted this post back in 2011, but never published it.... warning, I may contradict myself.

Like most people, I was shocked, angry and full of rage and hate during and immediately after the events of 9/11/01.

I am not ashamed to admit that revenge was always on my mind and that I believe that killing OBL was the right thing to do and should be celebrated as such. Also, the temporary dismantling and crippling of Al-Qaeda and removing the Taliban from power, was the correct response. I can support a policy of "whether or not it makes a difference in the long term, if you attack us in such a way, we will make your lives miserable for a while".

Honoring the victims, the heroes and the memory of that day are also something that we did right.

The sad part is that the attacks were HUGELY successful.

Not only did the initial attacks cause more than the intended physical and psychological harm, but we allowed our emotions to overrun our logic and the tragedy that played out had to have looked to OBL and his goons to be truly a gift from Allah.

We did NOT limit our response in Afghanistan to payback, killing Taliban and Al-Qaeda leadership and disrupting THEIR economy, society and training facilities, we had to go into a prolonged war there, due to our completely illogical invasion of Iraq. Not only did the Iraq war distract us from our mission in Afghanistan (which should have be clearly laid out and capped at 2 years duration and involved far more resources), it ruined our military and our economy.

The war in Iraq ruined our military because we over extended our volunteer forces well beyond their actual capabilities. No honest assessment of the fitness to serve of our reservists, nor our support assets for their families and their post-service healthcare was ever given, or certainly never given by anyone who wasn't fired from their post.

The war in Iraq ruined our economy by dismantling our Nation's surplus, further widening the gap between the poor and the wealthy WHILE reducing our capacity to manage the "mortgage crisis". Incidentally a "crisis" which was a self imposed, caused by criminal acts by our largest banks, financial institutions and government agencies.

Then to add insult to injury (literally), we went right into police state mode, like we always do during wartime and began forgetting that we have a constitution. We arrested people and didn't charge them. We infringed on citizens rights to privacy and due process. Basically, we gave up a piece of what America is all about in order to "improve security". Well, most experts will tell you that the three biggest deterrents to further attacks by airplane have been (1) reinforced cockpit doors (2) the realization by the enemy that passengers will take matters into their own hands if necessary (see the Pa heroes, shoe bomber passengers and others) (3) more intense baggage screening. None of which cost much money, disrupted travelers or necessitated us ignoring our core values !!

Other more pragmatically stupid things that we did were to ignore the plight of first responders, fail to come up with a reasonable memorial and not immediately rebuild on the WTC site.

Another very sad response was the explosion of polarization in our Nation's politics. The unprecedented extremism in our political landscape and the increased interweaving of religion into politics has to make our enemies grin.

So - enough bitching. What should we do going forward?

(1) We should remember the day on Sunday, but not with the hype and over blown craziness that will be inevitable. There should be a National moment of silence and then return to business as usual. Any more tears, any more debate, discussion, exposure of our tender underbelly is NOT the way to fight a war. Stiff upper lip, and a fuck you attitude is the only way to go.

(2) We should privately and without bravado, begin to develop a foreign policy that limits and eventually terminates all involvement in the Middle East and Asia, to include buying their oil and our completely ILLOGICAL support of the Israel. This is not an antisemitic remark. This is an anti-Israel remark. There IS a difference. Our unblinking support of their horrible policies regarding Arabs, is immoral and is crippling to our leadership role in the world. We need to also cease all financial support for Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and frankly every other country in the world, for a multitude of reasons. The two most obvious (to me) are that this support gets us nothing other than scrutiny for propping up bad governments and most immediately, we have a huge debt of our own to sort out.

(3) We should develop an energy policy that is based on developing renewable, clean sources of energy and in the mean time, using only energy developed from the US. Our first goal should be zero foreign imports and the second goal should be to go solar, wind, "new" nuclear and other clean and efficient forms as quickly as possible.

(4) Put back regulations on banks and anyone involved in trading financial instruments to a level that is appropriate and staff oversight agencies adequately. We could also properly educate our citizens to help them from being duped into ridiculous schemes and crazy mortgage arrangements. Probably, this education needs to start with our politicians, who seem to be some of the dumbest Americans of all, when it comes to understanding exactly how our government and our economy actually function. The Right wants a "defense of marriage clause in the constitution", how about a "must pass a simple test on government, economics, science, math, verbal and written communications and logic" amendment? I'd love to see that !!

So - what did 9/11 teach me?

(1) The importance of maintaining a cool head during crisis. Let my emotions play out, express my feelings, but to always make DECISIONS based on cold facts, as I always do, under "normal" situations.

(2) Never trust anyone, especially the Government, Financial Institutions or even sometimes my fellow Business Persons.

(3) Be prepared to beat up a terrorist if necessary and not to fear low probability events, even if they are catastrophic. We all have to die of something. Why fear a terror attack or an earthquake, when I should really be fearing stress, beer, cigarette smoke and Mc Donald's food? Those are the things most likely to kill me.

(4) My general feelings of misanthropy and intellectual superiority are NOT misguided.

Peace to you all - Remember the Fallen - Honor them by sticking to our Core Values

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

(1) Never stop working to form a more perfect Union of States (get involved, vote, speak out)
(2) establish Justice (for all people, not just some)
(3) insure domestic Tranquility (lets work together, calmly and peacefully)
(4) provide for the common defence (so spelling in 1787)
(5) promote the general Welfare (for all citizens, this includes not only a standard of living, but the tools *education* to maintain that standard of living and rules to protect us from those that would put our collective welfare *medical care and retirement* at risk for their personal gain)
(6) secure the Blessings of Liberty (DON"T ever take our freedom for granted, nor do any harm to its foundation, which is based on items 1-5 above)