His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Probably His Holiness will not mind if I quote extensively from his most recent book and then hope that you will read the book. It is partly a memoir of his experiences with friends rooted in the various faiths, and more importantly an analysis of the human roots of those faiths. Can we agree that all faiths have human roots regardless of their aspirations? Maybe not, those are my words. Here are some of his. Page 109, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths, Doubleday Religion:

“It is my conviction that compassion, the natural capacity of the human heart to feel concern for and connection with another being – constitutes a basic aspect of our nature shared by all human beings, as well as being the foundation of our happiness*. In this respect, there is not an iota of difference between a believer and a nonbeliever and between people of one race or another.”

May I insert another personal opinion before continuing. The above statement resonates strongly with me because of the basic logic of my background in studies of genetics and evolution. Not to quote some considerable evidence for the genetic importance of communal welfare. And contrary to the perversions of some subsets of the overall biological reality, for example “survival of the fittest” to suit preferences of some individuals and groups that are ignorant of the overall realities of life. It seems logical to me that Homo sapiens’ (we are all of the same species) selective advantage, that gave rise to our spectacular success on this earth, had to do primarily with a natural capacity to feel concern for and connection with other beings. I mean the difference between us and those that are no longer present on this earth. Probably it would be best for us if we don’t forget that reality, because we cannot survive on this earth without the well-being* of this living earth. Oh, oops, I was quoting religion, not science-based digressions:

“One can identify three broadly distinct approaches within this process. One is the theistic approach where the concept of God underpins the ethical teachings that foster man’s emulation of God’s own compassion. A second is the nontheistic religious approach, such as that of Buddhism, that invokes the laws of causality (cause and effect) and the fundamental equality of all beings in their basic aspirations for happiness* as the grounding of ethics. The third belongs to the secular or nonreligious approach, whereby no religious concepts are evoked but, rather, recognition of the primacy of compassion may be underpinned by common sense, shared common experience and scientific findings that demonstrate our deep dependence on others’ kindness.”

“. . . at the heart of all the world’s religions is a vision of human life that transcends the boundaries of an individual’s physical existence as an embodied, finite, and temporal being. A meaningful life, in all the faith traditions, is one that is lived with an awareness of a . . . “ dimension above the mundane.**

On page 114: “What we find in the teachings of the world religions is a vision of ethics that moves beyond the limited reciprocity of the Golden Rule to an exhortation to universal compassion.”

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*For American readers, I am sorry that the word happiness has been used as a traditional translation of the concept of welfare and well-being that I assume must be the original meaning of the Buddha’s statement in the Pali language. The American idea of happiness does not fit a concept of universal well being. For one thing, happiness is a human emotion, or at most an emotion of higher vertebrates, and we are talking about the welfare of all sentient beings, most of which are not higher vertebrates. For another, happiness has some especially negative connotations (shoot it up, buy it up, eat it up and you will be happy) in American English that are not part of its use in this context. One other interpretation of the concept that I heard from Sharon Salzberg is “well-being,” which is not as pretty a term but clearly must be more accurate, because every living thing has a need for well-being, and the intent is for the welfare of all living things.

** Mundane means ordinary or perhaps boring, but it also has another meaning: “matters of this world,” that is probably more to the point of this quote (per your friendly Microsoft computer dictionary).

Bare Bones Biology 050 – We Have a Problem

Last week I put my foot in my mouth by saying that we all agree (that should have been the clue). I said we all agree that we: “have serious human problems on this earth, and we can not resolve those problems in a positive way unless the ecosystem is healthy, because everything we need is provided by the ecosystem.” That’s what I said.

It turns out we don’t all agree to that. Some of us believe The Creation is perfect just the way it is. I don’t really argue about that, and I wish we could have a good discussion about it, because I don’t think we are disagreeing. I think it’s a matter of definitions. If we could sit down and define our terms, I think we would both be saying more or less the same thing, and then we could get together and spend our energy trying to fix whatever we see that needs fixing.

For example, surely we must agree that our human opinions will not change how God made The Creation. We can’t, for example, change the law of gravity that holds the thing together. The best we can do is try to understand it, so we can use it to make things for our convenience. Pyramids, airplanes and the like. We can’t change how the Creation functions – how it is set up, how molecules and atoms interact with each other, how animals get their energy from food, and all the other basic things of that sort. In that sense The Creation is indeed perfect just the way it was meant to function. Perfect and beautiful and miraculous. But I still think we have problems. I think we are disagreeing because we use different words for the same things, and again – your words or my words won’t change how God made things to function. The best we can do is try to understand.

Joseph Campbell devoted his whole career to studying our different ways of trying to understand God. In a PBS interview with Bill Moyers, he used the word “myth” when he talked about our religions:

“. . . the only myth that’s going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is the one that’s talking about the planet . . . how to relate to this society, and how to relate this society to the world of nature and of the cosmos.”

Naomi Klein used the term ideology when she said in a recent speech in Totnes, England
Naomi Klein – The Paradox of Crisis:

“ . . . this issue, the climate crisis in particular, affects everybody. We are all in this together, and this is beyond left/right. This is beyond ideology.”

Naomi Klein is willing to see that there are important ideological issues involved, and I certainly know how that feels. I’ve had my dreams shattered, and my world view. This happens in small doses when we live for a time in other cultures. It’s known as culture shock and it’s painful. It happens in bigger doses when one’s own culture abandons the beliefs that it taught us to believe. And the worst kind of culture shock is known as PTSD, when everything you tried to do for good turns out bad. It’s hard. It takes a long time to adjust, and I hope I have been moving my own world view, or you can call it my ideology, cultural myth, religion) a little bit closer to factual reality, at least for solving physical problems, because when we acknowledge factual, measurable reality – that’s when we have the power to fix physical problems.

When man, who was made in the image of God, can not talk with other man, who also was made in the image of God. Then we do have a problem, and the first step to solving it is as simple as listening to other points of view, and the second step is to cut through the propaganda and blame-placing and discussing our world views with compassion and dispassionate common sense. Because only God is perfect, and we are not God.

Bare Bones Biology 050 – We Have a Problem
KEOS, 89.1 FM, Bryan, Texas
http://FactFictionFancy.wordpress.com
http://www.BareBonesBiology.com

Education

For what it’s worth on a slightly peripheral issue (science teaching), my interest in school, as a student, was the way in which knowledge empowered my understanding and therefore my ability to function using my own resources instead of as a tool of the system. I have seen this happen to a small percentage of my students every year when I was teaching (college level).

We have replaced science in the curriculum from the bottom up we have replaced it with nature study and “fuzzy bunny” (feel-good) compassion lessons. In fact realistic compassion often doesn’t feel good, and nature study is not science. Neither the appreciation of nature nor that nice fuzzy feeling leads to empowerment. I doubt if most teachers want their students to be empowered to know how to function and learn without the help of a teacher.

It is not appropriate to teach students critical empowerment tools for thinking until they are about 12 or 14 years of age, because that’s when they begin to “get it.” However, in our school system now (and we in Texas are working on continuing this into college) we do not teach students how to learn for themselves. We the teachers are “God,” the student must memorize and believe what we say. Only last week I had a friend (college graduate) rant on for about half an hour about how he was taught the names of all the humanoids in his anthropology class, and then they changed them all. Therefore you can’t believe anything in science. He never let me answer, but it is obvious that he was never taught any science. Science has nothing to do with memorizing the names of anything (except you have to have words to talk about things). Science is about learning how things work so we can be empowered not to throw a spanner in the works (spanner is british for wrench). The way to win an argument in that world where only words are real is to believe whatever you believe and don’t let anyone else have a chance to change your belief. The way to grow one’s understanding through science is to discuss/evaluate the issues based on the differences between measurable facts and opinions. To avoid talking about anything because it doesn’t feel good to be wrong — that is the outcome of teaching feel-good “science.” (I’ve had other people tell me “the facts keep changing” and I know very few people who actually know what a fact is, as differentiated from an opinion.)

There is no better tool in our arsenal than real science, starting with the basics, to teach students how to answer questions for themselves and in their communities — and come up with answers that correlate with reality. If we base our behaviors on opinions (as this generation has been taught to do) then we will have continuing massive disasters, because human opinions CAN NOT CHANGE physical facts. However, our teachers are trained in the liberal arts and do not know how to do this for themselves — much less teach students how. The liberal arts (out of curiosity I spent a whole year going to seminars in the department) have an almost entirely different set of critical thinking skills, and that is where our best students tend to go now, because they do get answers that relate to self-empowerment. So whenever they tell us they are teaching critical thinking skills — they are — but those skills involve HUMAN behaviors — not the primal laws of the universe.

And then there is technology, which is not science. Science is the quest to understand how things work in the real world — not our ticket to sell those things to the highest bidder.

So we are in a mess, but it will not help to train more and more students about human behaviors in the absence of aligning those behaviors with reality via the basic sciences. Nor will it help to train more and more students about the power of reductionist science in the hands of humans — without also teaching them both about basic science and about our human responsibilities to each other and to the way the world really does function — that we can’t change. How many of our teachers have even been exposed to these ideas? Why not? So then what do we expect of them or of their students?

How many people at Lawrence Livermore really understand what I just said above? If not, how do they expect to train more scientists who have the compassion to care about the implications of what they are studying and learn biology to go with their physics and their obligation to humanity and the ecosystem?

You have a wonderful project. I feel quite sure you can get funding from the “system” to set this up and it will train people how to make more food. But, really, why do we need more food? The bottom line is that only the ecosystem can make food for us to eat — and the more of the ecosystem resources we use for ourselves to eat, the less likely the ecosystem is to survive with us in it? And the more human suffering will result.

OK? That’s your question for today. Most people answer that this is an interim action for the emergency. I heard that 50 years ago and ever since. What I want to see is someone making some kind of effort to deal with the real problem that causes the emergencies — and teaching all these fine students that there is no such thing as winning unless we address reality itself.

Artifacts

A friend once pointed out a tiny little figure in the far distance of a landscape and said: “I don’t like pictures with artifacts in them.” Interesting thought. It stuck in my mind. I was living and photographing in Tokyo for a couple of months, trying to get pictures without artifacts (OK, but without electrical wires), and I remember this very clearly too (I don’t remember birthdays, I remember insights), when I realized the electrical wires are an integral part of the composition. And so are we. And so is everything else inside the ecosystem. As Joseph Campbell said: “It’s great. Just the way it is.” Like it or not.

I am the Vine and You are the Branches

I have been continually frustrated by the classically inaccurate translations of Buddhism into English. Indeed, I am continually frustrated by words in general, but the most irritating word, actually phrase, that I know: “Everyone wants to be happy.”

Indeed? That is not my goal, so the statement is not true, because in spite of the second most frustrating word (emptiness) I am somebody. So with these two English words that are (apparently) used to represent the very roots of Tibetan Buddhism, I stop listening. I’m a scientist. When someone makes a dogmatic statement that obviously can’t be true, I don’t believe it. Instead, I ask for a definition. In the case of happiness and emptiness, I don’t get an answer, but only the words themselves, repeated, as though saying the same word over would endow it with meaning; but I already knew that all words are empty of meaning outside of their context. I knew this because I am a good scientist.

So what am I to believe? Certainly not in a path that is clearly not true. Or is it the words that are not true? What these words mean to a Tibetan, I do not know. I’m pretty sure that every Tibetan also is not striving for happiness, but let’s stick with the only exception I know for sure, which is me.

Why is it that I do not want to be “happy?” Because happiness is a fake state of mind. It’s a hyped up phoney effort to pretend that we humans can control reality. Happiness is here today and if we want to be happy again tomorrow then we have to hype ourselves up again, and if that doesn’t work we pop a pill. The word brings to my mind a picture of a bunch of adolescent potheads in some kind of orgy, or maybe a child who is so sheltered that he believes the whole world is made for him; if he runs out in traffic the caars will all magically stop. Or a college freshman who believes he can do whatever feels good and still get A’s in his classes. He gets mad if that doesn’t happen, and then he’s not happy so he has to pop a pill and falls asleep and misses another class.

No. I am not in the least interested in happiness as long-term goal, though it is nice in moderation. Probably the closest thing to what I do want is contentment, or peace of mind, or a restful mind, but certainly not happiness, even though that word pops out of every page of Buddhist doctrine written in English. So what are we going to believe, a well established concept or an empty word to which we cling as though our lives depended upon it, even though it doesn’t make any sense? (Or neither?) As Buddhism is about 2500 years old, and the Tibetan was translated into English I think about 50 or 60 years ago; I have to suspect a mis-translation of some Tibetan word or context.

Words are empty sounds. They have no intrinsic meaning. Their meaning arises from their context and our experience in life. I already knew that before I tried to understand Buddhism, and I keep emphasizing that I knew it precisely because I am a good scientist. I emphasize this because I believe when high disciplines are in conceptual agreement, then there is a strong probability that they are both accurately describing the essence of the concept. Or to make plain – we are both (all) right. And what do we both (all) agree is the essence? Phenomena, like words, are empty of meaning outside of their context. I already knew that, too. Not so much because I am a good scientist, but because I am a good evolutionary ecologist. “It” is what it is. Not whatever we think we can make it be.

So what’s the problem here? Why do we seem to be afraid to define our terms and beliefs and use them in their common context to benefit all sentient beings? Why do you try so hard to teach me things that I already know? Why not listen to my words, as I listen to yours – listen to me, what I know, instead of trying to prove that I don’t. Is this a need to be a class above other beings? Classism? Religionism? No, that’s not the word I want. It’s not even a word. Empty superiority?

If we would get our act together, and get to work on our responsibilities. Of course we have responsibilities to each other. Of course we do – we are the context. We and the ecosystem. Actually the ecosystem is the root of our physical welfare, but we can respond positively or negatively to that reality, and if we were to respond positively and forget about superiority — which is in any case empty. Maybe we could make it work.

Denial is a powerful thing. I believe that our human (instinctive) makeup requires that we make logical sense of the world. That logical structure plus our experiences, are the building blocks of our world view. When the building blocks don’t fit, it drives us nuts [not crazy, just desperate to make life make sense when we are unable (poor little thing) to acknowledge reality without trashing our own world view]. The whole laboriously constructed world view — leaving us helpless to deal with the world. The most shocking thing about the Anita Hill affair to a person who (by experience) recognized the obvious validity of her claims was the comment by the (democratic) senator who said the only possible, conceivable explanations for her behavior were two — that she (Anita) was either crazy or evil. What, no other possibilities were conceivable? I can think of a bunch of them, and to have a senator who only could imagine two?

You might think in any situation the obvious thing would be to adjust one’s mind to the reality, but it is in fact not. It’s the world’s most humongous culture shock. Almost nobody can adjust their worldview quickly, and probably never when it is under attack. There is really only one resolution that solves problems, and that is for people on any two-sided issue to talk with each other in good faith, but Americans no longer do that.

Thanks for sending this out. Anita Hill’s courage was one of the learning points of my life, as I was trying to deal with executives who were either blind or pretending to be, or they had straight-jacket world views (poor little things, it is very painful to have a world view that is not aligned with reality). Unfortunately it was not only dangerous for Anita Hill then, it is the TEA party now. More unfortunately, trying to fight against a worldview that has been backed into a corner — doesn’t work. It only makes them frantic. And you trying to explain your logic to them also doesn’t work because that’s the whole point — your logic is not logical in their context in exactly the same way that their logic is not logical in your context. The only thing you both agree about is that winning is essential and it is a battle, not a problem waiting to be solved or a shared solution waiting to be found. If we can’t do something about our yes/no, win/lose, two-pointed worldviews in this country I expect that we will lose the country.

Pre-Course Course this coming Tuesday

The overall theme of this series of six discussions is that we really are in deep doodoo with regard to the whole world ecosystem (and I am not interested in specific examples, such as the gulf, but the overall function of the ecosystem). We cannot resolve our human issues by fighting a battle with the ecosystem that we have no chance of winning.

For the first two sessions, Bare Bones Ecology will be very factual and also very much to the point: what is an ecosystem in relation to us, and how does energy really function in the ecosystem. Importantly, I want to spend some time explaining the basic laws of nature that nobody can change, because we are butting heads with them when we should be devising work-arounds. I will not spend a lot of time debunking myths, but will talk about the reality. One reason for asking a diverse audience is that I expect the reality will disturb some world views. This is a good thing that we can discuss. I believe all world views are logical, but not all are well aligned with the facts. If we mutually understand the real, measurable facts of our lives, and we use the same words to mean the same things, then our discussions and our behaviors are more likely to have positive results, no matter what other things we do in life.

The four following sessions, or any among them, are open to people who come to the first two. The topics to be discussed will be, in this sequence:

1.Political implications of our impacts on the ecosystem
2.Social implications
3.Religious implications
4.Technological and economic implications

Or come to the official course beginning third week of September at the Natural History Museum of the Brazos Valley