Gideon’s Sermons #1: On The Limits of Goodness

This is a sermon given by a young cleric I role-play as in a Pathfinder campaign.

I cannot say I agree with all of the thoughts and opinions expressed by Gideon, but I think he provides an interesting perspective on goodness in a somewhat Stoical light worth considering.

Doom and Cookies

Starday – 14th, Sarenith

What are the limits of goodness? Should we care only for those who care for us? And should we hurt those who hurt us?

I will begin by telling you to not work against your fellow man—envying, hating, abandoning; to do so, is to work against yourself. Remember this: There is nothing that an evil man can do to you that can take away your goodness.

Each of us is faced with the same struggle—between doing good and doing evil—and it is within the reach of each of us to do one or the other.

There was a boy foolishly waddling about the edge of cliff. Expectedly, he slipped, barely catching himself on the cliff’s edge. Each time he tried to climb up, he slipped further and his grip was becoming weak. As he cried out for help, a man approached and stood above him.

The…

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Gorgias Explains the Cave

Gorgian Cave

[Upon seeing the perplexed expression of his disciples, Gorgias continued.]

Now the cave, or den, is the world as it is, the ever-living Fire is power, the shadows are the visions that those with the power create, the chains are those ideas which would keep our minds subject to the conventions of mores and virtues and norms, the way upwards is the path of folly, and in the emptiness at the mouth of the cave are the virtues of the void.

He who pursues the virtues of the void journeys in vain; he is unwilling to descend into political assemblies and courts of law because his mind is still prisoner to the chains of fantastic ideals. He wishes to remain in the realm of those who have never in their lives understood the relation of the shadow to the substance.

Visions come in two ways; they are either that which is forced upon us or that which we force upon others. A man of sense will distinguish between them.

The man whose visions are foisted upon those of the prisoners we deem powerful, and pity the other.

There is a further lesson taught by this parable of ours. Some persons fancy that instruction is like giving eyes to the blind, but we say that the faculty of sight was always there, and that the soul only requires to be turned round towards the truth.

Other strengths are almost like bodily habits, and may be acquired in the same manner, but he who has true power is divine and is indestructible, returning either to bondage or to freedom according to the direction given.

Did you never observe how the mind of an intelligent man peers out of his eyes, and the more clearly he sees, the more greatness he achieves? This is because he is not bound in the way of others – he is free. He is such a person who has been cut away from those leaden weights of virtue which keep his eyes transfixed on the shadows, whose intelligence has been turned round. He has beheld the truth as clearly as he now discerns his meaner ends.

Then now comes the question: How shall such a man become their rulers; what way is there from weakness to power?

The Cave of Gorgias

Cave of Gorgias

[Gorgias, speaking to his disciples.]

Imagine human beings living in an underground den whose mouth is obscured by a winding, ascending tunnel. These people have been there from childhood, having their necks and legs chained, and can only see into the den.

At a distance there is an ever-living Fire, and between the Fire and the prisoners a raised way. A low wall has been built along the way, like the screen over which marionette players show their puppets.

Behind the wall there are moving figures, who hold in their hands various works of art; among them are images of men and animals, wood and stone. Some of the passers-by are talking and others remain silent. Due to an echo which returns from the wall, the voices of the passers-by seem to proceed from the shadows.

These prisoners are people like us, seeing only the shadows of the images which the Fire throws on the wall of the den; to these they give names.

Suppose now that one were to suddenly turn them round and make them look with pain and grief to themselves at the artifacts in front of the flame; will they believe them to be real? Will not their eyes be dazzled, and will they not try to get away from the light of the Fire to something which they are able to behold without blinking?

And suppose further, that you are one of these prisoners but unlike the others– and your bonds had been loosened, would you not traverse the steep and rugged ascent towards the mouth of the cave? Would you not pursue the Light of lights which illuminates the world beyond the cave in its radiance?

What would become of you if you moved to the threshold of the cave and found naught but darkness — void of anything? When you have discovered that the shadows on the walls are but illusions of the Fire and that these illusions are all that is – what becomes of you and your lofty ideals?

Upon knowing the truth, you cannot bind yourself as the prisoners have been bound – for now you are free and your options stand thus: jump into the void and become as nothing or return to the prisoners and, in the shadow of truth, exercise dominion over them. How worthless to you will seem the honors and glories of the just! For now you are free.

In returning to that underground dwelling, will you not see more clearly after having been exposed to the darkest dark? The light of the Fire will become ever-more brilliant and you can join, upon that wall, the casters of shadow by whom the realities of the prisoners are shaped!

The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You

The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You 1

In Alpine regions, Santa Claus has more than happy little elves to assist him on the holidays, he is accompanied by a demonic and frightening figure. While good Saint Nicholas is rewarding the well-behaved children with gifts, Krampus is tormenting the misbehaved with a good caning.

It seems that in recent years a similar distortion of the holiday spirit (it’s about being good for goodness sake, right?) has taken hold of Christmas in the United Statesthough, it is a terror of a different nature: the Elf on the Shelf.

The Elf on the Shelf is a doll that is described to children as being an agent of Santa, reporting back to the jolly fat-man who’s been naughty or nice (presumably to decide whether you get an iPod, some coal, or a visit from Krampus if you’re an unlucky Austrian child). Notions of Big Brother immediately came to mindand the doll’s song doesn’t quite alleviate such thoughts.

The elf on the shelf is watching you —
what you say and what you do.
The elf on the shelf is watching you —
each and every Christmas!

It seems to me, first and foremost, that we are introducing a superstition to our children that we know isn’t truevaluing truth, I find it slightly offensive. But more worryingly, we’re teaching our children, under threat, to do the right thing.

A dilemma I’ve found myself pondering lately is: If the consequences are the same, is it better that a child does the right thing because they wanted to do the right thing (Goodness for Goodness sake) or is it somehow cheapened if someone does the right thing through coercion (coal, a beating, a bad report to Santa, etc.)?

In other words: Does character matter?

If it does, then what are we doing by introducing a new “Christmas tradition” that celebrates this sort of morality-at-gunpoint?

Adrian Hawkes, of Phoenix Academy is not alone in saying:

If there is no God, there is no Lawgiver, why does it matter what I do? Why is rape wrong? Why is pedophilia wrong? Why are any of these things wrong?…I think that all people, if they think they can get away with something and, it is, there is no consequenceswe actually tend to do that. I think that is the reality…

Many sophisticated and unsophisticated theologians seem to agree with this principal on this principleRavi Zacharias and Ray Comfort come to mind.

But, really? Without the threat of hellfire or bribery of eternal bliss would we really become immoral rapists and pedophiles? Without the Elf on the Shelf do children become immoral troublemakers?

I sometimes worry what a child will do when they find out Santa doesn’t exist primarily due to the feeling of betrayal that comes from being lied to, not because they’ll become evil, little heathensbut what happens if men like these, who base their morality on a threat or commandment, find out God doesn’t exist?

The Elf on the Shelf is Watching You 2

Merry Christmasor else!

Thoughts on Justice, Causality, and Free-Will

Justice, Causality, Free-Will

A man is enrolled in a college course. In this college course it is required that he write his own work and respond to the work of his peers. On at least two occasions, this man has been exposed for plagiarism.

Under normal circumstances, it only takes one strike to failbut the professor gracefully gave the student a second chance… a chance that the student did not take seriously because soon afterwards the man was exposed, yet again, for plagiarismspelling an end to his enrollment in his course and spelling the beginning of another dismal episode in his academic career.

Probably due to my current Behavior Analysis frame of mind, I’d say that this is a perfect demonstration of the principles of Reinforcement and Punishment. The man got away with plagiarizing the first time around, increasing the likelihood that it would occur again.

Justice, Causality, Free-Will 2

In order for behavior to be modified, the desired behavior must be reinforced and the undesired behavior must be punished. In this instance, the man’s behavior was reinforced. The first time around, he received a reinforcing grade for his undesired behavior which was more reinforcing than the aversive talking to that most people would agree should have dissuaded him.

In order for punishment to be effective it must be: 1. Immediate 2. Consistent 3. Aversive.

For a punishment to be truly aversive, I wouldn’t say that punishment needs to “fit the crime”it just needs to be aversive enough to ensure it doesn’t happen again. In this scenario, we could imagine a punishment that might have been aversive and appropriate given the situation:

Justice, Causality, Free-Will 3

Unfortunately for the cheater, we might say his idiocy prevented him from grasping a warning as an aversive enough condition.

But is idiocy really at the core? Perhaps a warning simply wasn’t aversive enoughto the point of maybe being almost reinforcing.

I wonder if this is the result of his behavior being shaped by prior experiencesperhaps getting warnings for his errors without a real response-contingent punishment from parents, professors, and policemen. In behavior analysis it is understood that behavior occurs because it has been reinforced. If this is the case, can we really blame him? He’s just the product of conditioning. So am I and so are you.

All of our wants and desires, values and ideals, attitudes and personalities are the consequences of prior experiencesprior reinforcers and punishments acting on a completely uncontrollable machine composed of neurons. All of our behaviors (intrinsic and extrinsic) boil down to the turning of cosmic wheels. No matter how complex this equation, there is no room for free-will to creep in. As an aside, some pseudo-scientific understanding of quantum indeterminacy might appear to add an element of randomness to the cosmic machine, but it would be comparable to throwing in a dice-roll to the mixwe remain reorganized cogs in an apparently mercurial machine. This appearance of unpredictability, however, is faulty. Whether stemming from obscurity, complexity, a false premise, or simple ignorance, to admit of free-will is to deny the obvious rule of cause-and-effect.

Sam Harris illustrates in his book, Free Will, a short-hand description of what precedes our imagined notion of “free-will”:

Take a moment to think about the context in which your next decision will occur: You did not pick your parents or the time and place of your birth. You didn’t choose your gender or most of your life experiences. You had no control whatsoever over your genome or the development of your brain. And now your brain is making choices on the basis of preferences and beliefs that have been hammered into it over a lifetime — by your genes, your physical development since the moment you were conceived, and the interactions you have had with other people, events, and ideas. Where is the freedom in this? Yes, you are free to do what you want even now. But where did your desires come from?

This cocktail of factors that determine our every thought really can account for all of our wants, desires, wills, decisions, etc.however obscure or impossible that idea might seem.

The student failed because he cheated. He cheated because the behavior had been reinforced. Everything he will ever do is a response to previous consequences of previous actions stemming from the very first stimulus that provoked him to his first behaviorwe can almost call it a primum movens.

The question of free-will, however, is not the question that bothers me. The question that bothers me is: Can he be blamed? In understanding the law of cause and effect, perhaps “blame” is an out-dated concept. We don’t blame the bullet for the destruction it causes, nor the gun for projecting it, we tend to blame the person pulling the trigger. But if people are composed of the same matter that composes everything else — all of their being is subject to the same laws of nature, the same law of cause and effectcan they really be blamed?

Within the context of justice and creating a just society, we certainly need to hold individuals accountable for their actions and act accordingly; but perhaps there is another way of thinking about the problem of responsibility and blame that would make this whole concept make more sense that we (or at least I) have not yet considered.

Perhaps my initial anger at the cheater is an outdated response when considering the much more complex reality of the situation. Perhaps all retaliatory impulses are outdated as well as the laws and punishments that reflect them.

The Importance of Being Earnest

The Importance of Being Earnest

Everyday, everyone is faced with decisions that must be made in the light of their personal ethical obligations. Sometimes these choices are complex with many pros and cons to take into consideration and at other-times they are undemanding enough to consider even momentarily. These situations may involve our perceived duties as friends or parents. They may be as controversial as whether or not to have an abortion or whether we should cheat on an exam or spouse. As I begin to write this, I cannot give a generalized maxim that can be implemented when faced with these dilemmas (however challenging or un-challenging they may be). I have not written any brilliant aphorisms that answer these situations. What I will do is try to consider and point out something that, quite lamentably, remains unconsidered in people’s day-to-day lives. The problem I wish do deal with is the importance of being earnest and, more specifically, the importance of sharing earnest positivity.

Generally, when caught in the heat of the moment, we are quick to say something we will undoubtedly regret later – “I wish we had never met,” “I hate you,” or “I can’t believe you’re MY child.” Too often, the damage we have dealt with these thoughtless, reckless words are not easily remedied. A lifetime of friendship or partnership can be brought to a quick collapse with a declarative statement spoken without any forethought — however true for the moment that statement might be. A cautionary gem found in the Epistle of James advises us to be swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath. Perhaps this is the maxim we could live by, by which many of the problems brought about by a loose tongue and quick temper would be solved. Unfortunately, these are difficult instructions to abide by. When negativity in the form of anger runs rampant onto the scene we are often dragged along on the calamitous ride.

Seemingly slaves to our feelings, it appears that it is much easier to be obedient to the devil on our shoulder than the angel on our other. What a better world it would be if our nice and constructive thoughts were the first to reach our tongue rather than the malicious and destructive ones. There is a certain importance in being earnest positively, one with clear consequential outcomes. If this is so, why is it the case that we give voice to negativity more often than positivity? Why is it that the majority of us are ready to criticize mistakes than praise accomplishments — however minor?

Imagine what relationships could have been salvaged if before that tipping point of frustration there had already been a strong foundation of open and earnest compassion, understanding, or kindness. It seems clear that we should never assume that someone knows we care, we should tell them. We should never assume that someone knows we love them, we should tell them. One maxim I have picked up on making assumptions is that when you assume, you make an ass out of u and me.

According to some professors I have spoken to as well as some online websites, there seems to be an understanding that performing 5 acts of appreciation and acknowledgment to every 1 negative interaction can fix a relationship or keep it healthy. You’d think that people who are in love with each other would find such advice superfluously and unnecessarily spoken — “Of course we should focus our energies to engaging in more positive over negative interactions,” they might say. Why, then, is it so hard? We want to be happy and we want the people we love to be happy — so why does creating unhappiness come easier?

Another thought to consider, according to suicide.org, in the United States in 2001 “Suicide [was] the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24 year olds.” I wonder how many of these suicides, committed at the start of these people’s lives, could have been prevented if some of the kinder words we keep to ourselves had not gone unexpressed? How many lives could have been spared if we had not assumed that they knew we cared already? How much potential was lost as a result of our unspoken positivity or our outspoken negativity?

I have been told, “If you have nothing nice to say, then don’t say anything” — but this seems to be only one side of the coin (and the other side of the coin remains without a popular and quotable maxim). Regardless, the aforementioned aphorism is one I disagree with. Above being nice, it is important to be truthful. For statements of fact, opinion, or belief to hold any weight they must be true and spoken in absolute earnest. Perhaps what you have to say is not very nice, but it could be a vital truth — and it is better to be rude than to be dishonest. Even in less dire situations, such as someone asking their partner, “Does this outfit make me look fat?” it is important that the partner responds earnestly and honestly — if not, then any further compliments may end up being disregarded as mere flattery. It is honesty in difficult scenarios that makes all other words meaningful.

Even storybook villains come to the conclusion that, “Only enemies speak the truth; friends and lovers lie endlessly, caught in the web of duty.” — but perhaps we can change that.

It is in this mode of thought that it seems important to be earnest not just in uncomfortable and unpleasant conversations but also when we can encourage and inspire. If I could propose a new maxim, I would recommend people to: be earnest and honest in all dealings, good and bad — and to be unreserved with the good. Words unabiding by this maxim seem to be empty flatteries and wasted breath.

The Mother of all BRCAs

The Mother of all BRCAs
(Photo by Yan Boechat)

Richard Dawkins ends his written critique of faith-based religion, “The God Delusion,” by creating a metaphor between our slim spectrum of sight and the understanding of our size and significance in the universe to the thin slit in a large black burka — the rest of the fabric representing the vast data we cannot see or fathom.

According to Dawkins, the progenitors of science, such as Charles Darwin with his theory of evolution, “seized the window of the burka and wrenched it open, letting in a flood of understanding…” Dawkins explains that we have evolved in Middle World with a Middle World understanding, not too big or too small, slow or fast, by the necessary means of natural selection. The burka is a double entendre, showing both our natural limitations and the ones we force upon ourselves (by means such as religion), like an actual burka.

In closing this chapter, appropriately titled The Mother of all Burkas he states, “We are liberated by calculation and reason to visit regions of possibility that had once seemed out of bounds or inhabited by dragons.”

Optimistically he concludes,

Could we, by training and practice, emancipate ourselves from Middle World, tear off our black burka, and achieve some sort of intuitive — as well as just mathematical — understanding of the very small, the very large, and the very fast? I genuinely don’t know the answer, but I am thrilled to be alive at a time when humanity is pushing against the limits of understanding. Even better, we may eventually discover that there are no limits.

This is a vision I also find attractive. Unhindered by superstition and unsubstantiated beliefs, the collective understanding of humanity can advance in all scientific, philosophical, and even spiritual fields. Unfortunately, there are many obstacles on the road to knowledge and more still for the greater well-being of people.

This article is not about religion, faith, or indoctrination. This is an exposition into a case of human vice.

Our tale begins in 1980 when a landmark decision by the United States Supreme Court was made in the case of Diamond v Chakrabarty. Up until this point, it was understood that living things are not patentable subject matter. This was until Dr. Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a genetic engineer, developed a bacteria that had the ability to break down crude oil and requested a patent for the bacterium. Initially, he was turned down. But after a series of appeals from both sides of the case, it was officially settled in the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court reversed the prior understanding ruling that a “live, human-made micro-organism is patentable subject matter under § 101. Respondent’s micro-organism constitutes a ‘manufacture’ or ‘composition of matter’ within that statute” — leading to an eruption of biotechnology institutions and corporations patenting various cloned, isolated, artificial, and identified genes. Utah-based Myriad Genetics, Inc. was one of these biotechnological institutions that grew into one of the titans of gene discovery and diagnostics as a result of this ruling.

Bioethicist, Dr. Bryn Williams-Jones observes in his article History of a Gene Patent: Tracing the Development and Application of Commercial BRCA Testing, that

The Myriad case is a harbinger of an increasing number of instances where gene patents provide companies with monopolies on the development, marketing, and provision of genetic tests and therapeutics…this case has become a focal point…for debates about the social and ethical implications of DNA patenting and the commercialization of genetic tests.

BRCA1 (breast cancer 1, early onset) is a human tumor suppressor gene, which produces a protein. This protein is found in the cells of breast and other tissue, where it helps repair damaged DNA and destroy the cell when DNA can’t be repaired. If the BRCA1 gene is damaged, the damaged DNA can let the cell duplicate without control, and turn into a cancer.
Myriad Genetics held the patents for the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes meaning that they have the right to prevent anyone from studying, testing or even looking at a gene. They can open up testing for free or charge outrageous sums of money for such testing ($3000, perhaps).

A friend of mine is afflicted with a mutation of a similar type. If this gene was patented and those suffering it’s mutation were extorted in the way those with the mutated BRCA1 and BRCA2 are, it’s possible that I might have already had to attend my friend’s funeral. As we can see, when science becomes a business it loses the value of a human endeavor and becomes a means to control and extort.

The American Civil Liberties Union pointed out a further problem at the core of the patents when they petitioned the Supreme Court for writ of certiorari claiming,

The patenting of isolated DNA violates long-established Supreme Court precedent that prohibits the patenting of laws of nature, natural phenomena, products of nature, and abstract ideas… Patents on isolated DNA, whether small segments or whole genes, also violate the First Amendment because they block scientific inquiry into the patented DNA.

The human endeavor of science is impeded and the lives of many people are hindered, even being cut short, as a result of patents such as these.

As reported by CBS News on March 26, 2012

The Supreme Court on Monday threw out a lower court ruling allowing human genes to be patented, a topic of enormous interest to cancer researchers, patients and drug makers.

The court overturned patents belonging to Myriad Genetics Inc. of Salt Lake City on two genes linked to increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

This came as a result of a court opinion that was reached, as reported on Patently-O, only days before in the case of Mayo v Prometheus in which the Supreme Court held that “the personalized medicine dosing process invented by Prometheus is not eligible for patent protection because the process is effectively an unpatentable law of nature. This decision reverses the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit’s holding that the claims were patentable because they included substantial physical limitations.”

I am very happy to see that we’re taking a step back to reexamine an unjust ruling. Patenting genes, or any other product of nature, hinders scientific progress and lives. Money should not hold significant weight against the lives of human beings. Science is a human endeavor and it is more than a mere body of collected facts to be exploited for personal gain; it is a humble means to great ends. When used correctly it is a bright flame which can be used to beat back the enveloping darkness of ignorance and delusion — improving lives and livelihood. When treated by the unjust, science can be used as tool of the avaricious.

By virtue of being human, we have limitations, a burka through which we have only a thin window into the knowledge of truth and yet there are those among us who would close the window further — letting light peak in only when it would give them the advantage.