Views on Life

uncertain but searching

How Dare I Try to Define Me

nothing about me is certain

This document attempts to introduce readers to my beliefs, prejudices, and biases. Since establishing my website during the autumn of 1996, thousands of visitors have emailed me with questions on these topics. (Why? I have no idea.) It was more convenient to create this document rather than answer the same questions daily via email.

  • Human Nature: An exploration of how people act within society.
  • Ethics: What is “right” and how does one know?
  • Politics: My views on the current political structures and future social structures.
  • Religion: That which cannot be proved.
  • Philosophy: How I merge my opinions into a unified world-view.

What you might perceive as cynicism is laced with dry wit. Leap to no conclusions.

Readers are cautioned against trying to fit my opinions within an artificial context; by nature human thoughts are contradictory. We live with contradictions and “gray areas” because we must do so to survive without going insane. Like any supposed scholar acculturated with an analytic bias, I attempt to adhere to logical constructs based on information I obtain, while recognizing what I read, hear, and view might not be true. Even those things I sense might not be accurate. Being unsure of “truth” and always questioning “the answers” are not bad traits.

Every thinking, creative being has biases and prejudices. How, when, and where we were raised are responsible for many of our limitations. These are factors we cannot control, but must struggle to challenge. Most people raised in a system, be it a religion or a political structure, tend to favor what they know. Can you see the views of others? Can you appreciate that some issues are not clear? People born into a political party or faith tend to remain in that organization as adults. Why is that?

Nonconformists travel as a rule in bunches. You rarely find a nonconformist who goes it alone. And woe to him inside a nonconformist clique who does not conform with nonconformity.
— Eric Hoffer

Logic is not “truth,” but rather a form of rhetoric. It is the use of consistent guidelines to analyze information, nothing more. What is logical within one social experience might be foolish in another. Don’t you love philosophical Möbius strips? How we analyze data leads to our truths, and these truths shape how we analyze future data. Yes, it makes my head hurt.

Nothing like knowing I’m not certain about what I know. Tomorrow, I might change.

Question science, politics, philosophy, and religion. Ponder what you think you know to be true and be prepared to be wrong. If you find that you are wrong, no worries — adjust. Test whatever new “truth” replaces your erroneous one and move onward. Maybe, just maybe, you will find a universal truth. (I doubt it, but I keep trying.) Recognize there are “wrong” answers, however. Some things might be true, while others are wrong.

Do not bother to debate me with rude email messages; I am not likely to change your mind and no one is likely to change mine. I share these thoughts to encourage others to explore their own views. Find your own path and explore it.

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those
who falsely believe they are free.
— Goethe

I suppose some aspects of my worldview are revealed in my favorite quotes.

Human Nature

Thomas Hobbes suggested we are motivated by self-interest. We could go back to Plato’s Republic and the voice of Glaucon as evidence philosophers have long struggled with this aspect of human nature. While not embracing the egoism of Ayn Rand, I do tend towards a nuanced version of the Selfish Gene theory: humans try to preserve themselves and their “tribes” before aiding others.

Do not confuse egoist with egotist — they are not synonymous.

In general, most people are egoists; what we do we do because we believe it benefits ourselves or our “immortal” selves, including the success of our families. Every action has the self or the tribe at its core. There are likely no selfless, altruistic people, only people who engage in acts of kindness because doing so gives them pleasure. There is nothing self-delusional about wanting to do good, and at worst some of those who do charitable work do so because there is something in it for them — a “good” feeling. (Why would we condemn feeling good as a result of kindness?)

For others, doing good is only a method by which they earn passage into an after-life. I can think of nothing more self-centered than wanting to live forever. Then again, it depends on where forever is spent.

As a teacher, I require “service learning” projects. Social engagement helps everyone achieve their best. Generally, we need each other.

The instinctual desire for social contact — a biological imperative in humans — is the great balancing force in life. Because we desire, even need, society and its benefits, we make sacrifices of the self for the many. There is a reason the Greeks wrote of duty to the city-state: they recognized humanity needed strong social structures to acheive greatness.

Free time leads to philosophy and the arts. I cannot defend how civilizations of the past created free time, but I can suggest that is why we now seem intent on automation of repetitive tasks. Higher pursuits allow us to create and analyze “worldviews” of the natural world. A worldview includes values, beliefs, prejudices, and biases.

Moving Beyond Nature

An ability to move beyond nature makes humanity unique. We are “condemned” by our humanity to recognize this — we know that for society to function, we cannot remain children forever. Whereas we might want things given to us and imagine ourselves entitled to pleasure, reason leads us to understand social responsibility and consequences.

Our natures are not our destinies. We have free will, and can be greater beings.

Evidence exists for genetic predispositions that are can be considered advantages or disadvantages. Genetic obstacles might include medical and psychological challenges. People frequently surrender to challenges — the easy option of relying on others for care and offering excuses for events. Others rise to challenges, seeking enough assistance to then move ahead or finding inner-strength to rise above what confronts them.

Human selfishness, pride, desire, ego, et cetera… whatever your belief system might call the basic makeup of human nature, these are challenges we can confront. It begins by admitting that human nature will win sometimes; we are not and never will be stronger than our natures at all times. Most religions recognize this, as do philosophers, psychologists, and artists.

While socially maturing, never lose the childlike passion for new experiences and learning.

We never cease being like children. We never cease wanting “more” or seeking pleasure. What adults must do is focus their energies and understand that humanity is greater than one person, and sometimes greater than one family or one group.

Socialization includes learning to admire those willing to sacrifice the “self” for others and for ideas. I admire honesty. I admire admitting truth, even when it is unpleasant. I admire questioning “why…” even if there are no easy answers. People willing to work toward a better society, knowing perfection is impossible, are admirable.

Values and Beliefs

Values and beliefs are fluid, changing with situations and throughout your lifetime. We tend to be more aware of our values and beliefs than of our prejudices. Based on my view that humans are selfish and survival-driven, we begin “rating” items almost as soon as we can reach for things we desire.

Value System
A value is the rank or order of importance you assign to a set of things or concepts.
Dictionary definition: A judgment of the relative importance a person, thing, or concept has in relation to one’s life.

We value ourselves, our individual survival, highly. If we believe in an afterlife, the value of survival takes on a different meaning: the eternal life become more important than the “real” life on earth.

Rightly or not, humans tend to place a higher value on things with which they have a personal bond. As evidence, many people will save pictures and pets from a fire before they remember to wake their neighbors. Situations alter our values.

Subjective Beliefs (Faith)
A belief is an opinion that cannot be supported by facts, a matter of faith or preference.
Dictionary definition: A conviction that something is real or superior with or without certainty; a supposition.

We might like to think that our beliefs are “strongly held,” but in truth they are somewhat fluid. Our beliefs are slow to change, yet they do change for any number of reasons. As extreme examples, some people experience religious conversions, while others drift from their faiths. Most beliefs are not religious in nature; they are of a less cosmic nature.

Prejudices and Biases

Prejudices and biases are strong, usually reinforcing each other via a “feedback loop.” We tend to read and watch materials supporting our prejudices. A sizable body of scholarship on political biases exists, for example, revealing that our loyalties to political parties are often stronger than religious faith. Jonathan Haidt suggests the “Righteous Mind” theory explains our political inflexibility — and incivility. This is an extension of the tribal impulse in human nature.

Learned Prejudices
A prejudice is a judgment based on information, correct or not. To act in a prejudice manner is to pre-judge using past knowledge or experiences.
Dictionary definition: A judgment, usually unfavorable, formed beforehand, due to a fixed idea, especially without complete data.

A prejudice can be reasonable, such as distrusting a former cat burglar who now offers herself as a security expert. Most prejudices are more difficult to defend. Yet, there are people convinced “the other” is evil and dangerous, whether it is a racial group or the opposition political party. Sadly, we consider the other less than human, something tribes have done for centuries.

Input Biases
Your bias is what or whom you trust as an accurate source of information; sometimes called an input bias.
Dictionary definition: A strong leaning or propensity against or in favor of someone or something; to distrust or trust.

We surround ourselves with media and people supporting our prejudices. The words and images presented to us reinforce our views. Today, people even move to live among like-minded communities. This “Big Sort” has been the topic of books and scholarly research articles.

Many of my friends and colleagues are guilty of living in a political and philosophical echo chamber. We should challenge ourselves to consider other views, which is not easy. You must often try to forget everything you have experienced and consider “naturally” or “obviously” true to appreciate the viewpoints of others. We tend to naturalize and embrace the prejudices and biases we experience.

Ethics

At the core of my ethical system is one ideal: No one has the right to limit another’s freedom of thought or action unless preventing harm to others. We can limit actions in extreme cases, but we should never limit thoughts and expressions of thought, so long as they do not directly cause physical harm to others. Since people are egoists, we need a “social contract” theory — I agree to leave you alone only because I want to be left alone.

Allow me to cite John Stuart Mill, a more eloquent proponent of freedom and liberty than any contemporary voice:

That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil, in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him must be calculated to produce evil to someone else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
— John Stuart Mill, On Liberty

If I do not respect your freedom, how can I ask you to respect mine? All choices affect others, physically and emotionally. Social responsibility results from the interdependencies of individuals. Since any living person is engaged in the process of defining self and others, ethics develop accordingly.

Four Concepts

To understand my views, it helps to understand my use of language. These definitions were drawn from several sources, then condensed. Many people use these terms without realizing how problematic the words are when trying to express our worldviews.

Ethics
(1) The study and philosophy of human conduct with emphasis on the determination of right and wrong. (2) A system of morals.
Moral
(1) Based on probability; generalized human behavior. (2) Conforming to group standards of conduct.
Justice
(1) The rendering of what is due or merited. (2) Being impartial. (3) Honest or equitable.
Truth
(1) Conformity to requirements. (2) Faith in a statement’s logic. (3) Conforming to a system of rules.

As many philosophers have suggested, I resist adopting “group standards” as my own without some analysis. Remember, Mill warned of the “tyranny of the majority” that leads groups to ignore the rights of minorities. Ethics and justice set by popular opinion can be wrong — and even dangerous. Who can determine what is ethical for me or anyone else? I believe there are “right” and “wrong” actions, but I also recognize that contexts differ.

Immanuel Kant proposed the Categorical Imperative, a glorified version of the Golden Rule. Yet, such a simple notion as seeking a universal, reasoned course for all ethical choices is flawed. Logic and reason can lead to different places for different individuals. At best, we can do what seems is least likely to harm others or impinge on their freedoms, which returns me to an ethics of classical liberalism.

All four of the terms listed above are too abstract to mean anything — except what they imply at a given moment. Truth and justice present particular problems. Looking up “true” in a dictionary results in further confusion. Are there Truths of the sort Plato and Socrates called Forms? Is there a pure truth behind everything we experience?

It’s About Me

We do what we choose to do, even if we dislike the choice. The preceding statement explains how I make “moral” decisions. Many would argue some decisions are not choices at all. Jean-Paul Sartre suggested we always have free will, even if one of the choices is to cease existing. Having free will and the ability to make choices at all times does not imply we always have “good” choices available. In fact, very seldom does a serious choice exist without some negative consequences to either our own freedom or the freedom of another. What one must judge is the long-term benefits to the self. It is not logical to seek short-term benefits that might have negative long-term results.

When borrowing from utilitarianism, embrace J. S. Mill more than Jeremy Bentham.

Therefore, I start with the assumption that a choice is measured for the long-term benefits provided. This is not mere hedonistic benefit, as I reject pleasure as the highest human experience. To me a beneficial choice has the “selfish” goal of self-preservation and preservation of my friends, family, and community.

Individuals who seek short-term comfort are likely to suffer more in the end than those who plan carefully. A rather extreme example is a robbery. If I am confronted by someone with a gun demanding my money, I have several choices. I can fight, run, or present my wallet to the robber. I must make a choice based upon the long-term benefits to my existence.

Choices balance my desire to survive with my desire to preserve free will for others. Seeking a balance, which requires conscious effort, separates mankind’s sentient existence from that of other animals.

‘Ethical’ Living Among Others

All individuals are potentially important to my existence. This is the basis for any social contract. Because others might possess skills or knowledge beneficial to my existence, it would be foolish to unreasonably limit their freedoms. In return for the benefits others can provide to me, I agree to participate in a community and provide what skills and knowledge I posses to the greater group. Hobbes is closer to my view of this contract than John Locke.

I reject the coercive social contract suggested by the model of “social justice,” which would require redistribution via some compulsion by force. Even nuanced social justice theories that tacitly accept inequality seem to struggle with how to protect the individual — and this is not merely a problem of capitalism. Famed progressive philosopher John Rawls recognized inequality might be part of social order. My problem with this is that someone or some group gets to decide who is more equal than others.

Human social existence is a struggle to balance the individual and the community. Good luck with that.

I do not surrender myself to the community, nor do I ask others to surrender to the greater collective. I am willing to surrender some freedom, such as the freedom to drive by whatever rules I create, because I recognize the short-term enjoyment of speeding along the highway might threaten my longer-term survival within the community. Also, if I need the assistance of others for any reason, it is best not to have endangered those individuals.

While attempting to minimize the negative physical and emotional effects my existence might have upon others, I will not alter my morality to please the greater community. Coexistence does not require that I share common beliefs with the community, it only demands that I cause no physical harm or unnecessary emotional stress. It is not my responsibility to affirm the community standards beyond a respect for freedom.

Freedom of thought is the highest form of freedom, and the most important to defend.

I have the right to express any idea, concept, or belief I possess so long as I cause no physical harm to any other individual. Thought is the highest form of freedom and must be protected at all costs. I would sacrifice my life before I would allow the limitation of my thoughts. The thoughts of others, even those with whom I disagree, deserve the same defense.

Coexisting

I believe in my right to defend my existence, both as an individual and as a part of a community. I would defend myself and those I consider beneficial to my existence. As a free individual, I also have the right — even an obligation — to defend my freedoms. In my life, this includes supporting organizations dedicated to protecting individual rights. One person cannot always defend freedoms, so working with others is a reasonable approach.

The environment of the earth, with all its life, is important to my long-term existence. Humans are different, by nature of our sentience. Yet, we must avoid considering ourselves superior to other life on this planet. It is not a human privilege to unreasonably threaten the existence of any life. However, when forced to choose between my existence and that of another creature, I am inclined to protect myself and humanity. We should struggle with our role as stewards of the planet.

Coexisting must favor individual freedoms, however uncomfortable those might make us.

As an adult, I am free to enter into any form of consensual, adult relationship I view as beneficial to myself physically and emotionally. While there are relationships I would not form, I have no right to limit the relationship structures entered into by other adults so long as those relationships cause no physical harm to individuals outside of the relationship.

Finally, while coexisting with others I should remain free to do as I want to my own person so long as my actions pose no physical threat to other individuals. As an adult, I can research and obtain information pertaining to various ill effects acts and items might cause. It is an ultimate freedom to ignore the long-term benefits of acting or not acting in a given manner. Again, this is a nod to Mill’s theories of individual sovereignty. While I would generally select the logical, long-term benefits, I am not under any obligation to avoid fatty foods, alcohol, or anything else I enjoy with full awareness of potential dangers to my existence.

Politics

Classical liberalism, borrowing from thinkers as varied as Mills, Friedrich Hayek, Adam Smith, Robert Nozick, and P. J. O’Rourke, is the best umbrella under which my political views might rest. As might be expected of a reader of anything and everything political, my views have been shaped by thinkers with whom I agree and disagree to varying degrees. My views are shaped by a distrust of large organizations, especially those with the ability to exercise too much power and influence over individuals.

  • Government should be restrained to protect individual freedoms;
  • Corporations should be monitored skeptically, especially when they form alliances with government; and
  • Organizations should be treated as the special-interest advocates they are.

It is accurate to describe my politics as “libertarian,” inasmuch as anyone can be labeled via a political theory. I dislike the need for government, but there is a necessity for minimal national, regional, and local structures. In particular, our legal system is essential to promoting and protecting freedom.

To appreciate my political views, read the earlier section on ethics.

Like many self-described libertarians, I am not a Democrat, nor am I a Republican. Party affiliations strike me as dangerous: parties are organizations, after all, and behave like massive corporations. Tribal identities, explained above, are also unappealing to me. It is interesting to imagine a system without parties, but people naturally form alliances and groups. We recognize there is strength in numbers, especially in politics.

Generally, I manage to offend the zealots of both parties with my personal ethical system and mix of beliefs. Because the exercise of freedoms is how we can best define ourselves, I am offended when anyone tries to limit my thoughts, choices, or actions — and yet both major American political parties seem intent on limiting choices, even when those choices affect no one else in a significant way.

Too many people expect too much from the federal government. Federal programs come with federal strings attached, and too often lead to dependence. A national government should offer few services; regional and local governments should be the providers of most needed services. The very name of the “United States of America” implies each state is a unique and independent organ within the limits of the Constitution. If the United States had developed in accordance with its Constitution, the federal government would be more of a “union” or “confederation.” The federal system would defend the states, ensure contracts are respected, promote open trade, and defend civil liberties.

The federal system should only interfere with states when necesary to protect and promote individual freedoms. The Constitution was imperfect at our founding, but adding Amendments to the Constitution, a process wisely made difficult, have rightly recognized the civil liberties of women and minorities. I often wish an Amendment affirming the Tenth Amendment could be approved, sadly.

We are equal under the law, but we are neither born into equal circumstances nor do we acheive equally in life.

I respect the right of every individual to do as he or she desires so long as the resulting actions do not impinge upon my own freedom. If you want to hate me, fine. Avoid me and I will not seek out your services. The government does not need to protect me from your hatred unless you attempt to harm me without provocation.

Once a government expands, it seems impossible to reduce its size. Like any organization, government seems intent on growing itself. Good intentions are insufficient to justify such growth because the potential risks outweigh any possible benefits. Government can only grow at an increased cost to the citizens: freedoms are surrendered in various ways to feed the leviathan.

Capitalism

I am a proud “capitalist pig” and defend the free market from perversions left and right. The profit motive and competition encourage innovation and experimentation — when the market is fair and open. Too often, large corporations game the political system for advantages. Few things about government bother me more than corporate welfare in its various forms.

If alive today, Adam Smith might be called a “centrist” — he was not a radical laissez-faire capitalist.

Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations presents market capitalism as I envision it: guided by morality and social responsibility. It is a shame few people have read Smith (or at least P. J. O’Rourke’s guide to Smith). Yes, Smith is a product of his time and his work is flawed, but his captialism is not the caricature promoted by some today. Smith worried about inequality caused by the wealthy manipulating any political system. Book V of The Wealth of Nations addresses the need for progressive taxes.

It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion.
— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book V

Capitalism, according to Smith, is much more than merely seeking the best price for a product or service. Yes, the foundation is that each individual seeks to obtain goods and services at the best price, while also trying to obtain the highest posible price for any works he or she delivers to market. However, there is a social contact aspect to Smith’s works that should not be ignored:

  • Wealth accumulation results from a properly regulated open market system;
  • Capitalism exists only with the consent of a social community; and
  • Social stability requires the wealthy support the community institutions that provided them opportunties for success.

One does not need to embrace the radicalism of Ayn Rand — and probably shouldn’t — to be a “true” market capitalist. Smith and Hayek are much better sources for an understanding of how capitalism and politics should intersect. The traditional capitalist recognizes that paying taxes and fees can support institutions that further the potentials of the market.

Accept no more government than is essential to the community.

As members of their communities, successful capitalists understand the benefits of shared infrastructure, public safety, and education. Simultaneously, we are skeptical of government and its impulse to expand. We want only the amount of public expenditures that are absolutely essential, and not one penny more. Taxes should be no more than required to maintain the minimum government necessary for the community.

Social responsibility enables capitalism to survive by preventing social upheaval. This is not, however, the redistributive social justice promoted by contemporary political progressives. Emergency aid to those in need is not the same as wealth redistribution. Remember that I believe services should be provided at the local level, and many social needs should be met by charities instead of governments. Even when providing “emergency aid” to individuals, governments have a tendency to step on freedoms and create bureaucratic messes worthy of Kafka. Government seldom excels at efficiency.

Ownership

Today, the market is broken. High-frequency trading (HFT) of stocks, for example, allows someone to “own” a portion of a company for mere minutes or seconds. I refuse to consider day-trading of stocks and HFT legitimate forms of ownership. An owner cares about more than how many pennies he or she can make in a quick trade. I would institute a transaction tax, a significant penalty, on any trade cycle executed within 24-hours. Ownership means you have a real stake in a company and its workers.

Pride of ownership is genuine. To own something, you must feel linked to its success and reputation.

What might set me apart from other libertarians, more than a return to Smith, is my dedication to partial employee ownership of businesses. I am a capitalist and think people perform best when their good works produce rewards. Investors are still essential to many enterprises, so balancing external investors with internal stakeholders is important, since if everyone is boss no one is boss. Complete employee ownership has a mixed history, since employees resist making cuts — especially when jobs need to be cut.

Benefits of a Republic

Societies exist only via a series of compromises. In a democracy, the majority of adults are allowed to formulate these compromises. If I disagree with one of the compromises, I am free to express my thoughts and attempt to persuade others of the error. However, purely democratic forms of government can degrade into a “mobocracy” without protections of personal freedoms.

For this reason, along with several others, I prefer a constitutional republic, as we have in the United States of America. You should not confuse my support for a form of government as support for its actual implementation. The U.S. government has a great many flaws, as do all real-world implementations of political theory.

Preserving individual freedom should trump the desires of “society” whenever possible.

A republican form of government appeals to me because it offers protection to the minority. The Bill of Rights, those precious first Ten Amendments to the Constitution, mean a great deal to me and other Libertarians. Unfortunately, the courts have allowed the erosion many of these rights.

The Separation of Powers is a great thing, as is civilian control of the armed forces. In fact, the Founding Fathers, with all their flaws, created a system that requires careful debate to alter. Sometimes we might prefer faster change, but stability in government remains essential.

Some rightly argue that the American system lacks representation for minority opinions in the legislature. Consider the results if one party were to win 51 percent of the votes in every Congressional district. The other parties would have no members in Congress. None. In a parliamentary system, that would be an unlikely event, and proportional elections are the norm. Yet, history has demonstrated that our bicameral legislature and national election of a president offers stability that parliaments often lack.

Spending for Votes

Government can provide useful aid to citizens, though that aid can distort markets and create dependency. For example, the government aided me with secured loans for my college education. The problem is that this creates a Catch-22 situation: grants and loans to students enable rising tuitions, and those rising tuitions increase reliance on government programs. Higher education might be cheaper if institutions had to compete in a normal, open market.

Government tends to distort markets, paradoxically leading to an assumption that we need government in those markets.

We let government expand because it is familiar. We cannot imagine private companies doing some things that government does, though privatization might be a good thing. The government paves our roads, provides emergency services, and educates our children. The United States Postal Service delivers anywhere, something private companies cannot claim. (We forget that there are legal limitations on those private delivery companies, reducing their ability to compete against the USPS.)

Much government spending is largess meant to attract voters like bees to honey. Federal and state politicians seek projects for their districts, shoring up political support from those employed by the projects. When projects to create infrastructure are unavailable, politicians create new programs with a maximum number of jobs. It is little wonder that the fastest growing unions represent government employees, not workers in private industry.

Taxes as Buying Votes

Tax breaks are the worst forms of “spending” for votes. Without a corresponding reduction in spending, any money saved from one source must be collected from another. Corporations receive tax breaks, individuals receive “targeted” deductions, and society becomes us-versus-them in a competition for money — or the keeping of money we believe we have earned.

Corporatism, crony capitalism, is not the free market system. Special favors from government were a concern to Adam Smith and have proved a problem to this day.

Large corporations do not need tax waivers to build new plants or to hire employees. If there is market demand, a company will expand. When a big box retailer receives an exemption from taxes because a community wants the store, local businesses are being penalized. Adam Smith warned against letting the wealthy manipulate government, especially tax policy.

If government left social engineering out of the tax laws, Americans might be less cynical about taxation. Also, if the federal government allowed states to assume more responsibility for both services and corresponding taxation, people might feel as if they had more of a voice. Now, funds go to Washington, rules are attached, and then some fraction of the money returns.

Local Money, Local Control

Public safety, basic infrastructure, national defense, and a handful of other functions seem to belong within the purview of government. The challenge is determining the proper scope of government, versus the role of charities and private industry. Regardless of delivery method, public funding is going to be used for essential services — once we define “essential” as a community.

When I created this document in the late 1990s, I believed public education was one role of government I would defend without hesitation. Everyone, as a part of the greater society, has an interest in being a part of an educated community. While I continue to support free and universal education, that support now includes numbers of caveats. Public schools are in trouble, and I’m unconvinced that politicians and unions can reform a system stuck in a Industrial Revolution model.

Education should be a state and local responsibility, though a national standard for teacher credentialing would be nice.

I do not support having a federal Department of Education, which is a relatively new creation. Federal funding serves only to allow national regulators a means of control over local schools and their communities. No Child Left Behind, the result of Senator Edward Kennedy and President George W. Bush working together, is a misguided attempt to standardize education at the federal level. Local control has always been a hallmark of American education.

In return for a mere four percent of the educational funding to local schools, the federal Department of Education exercises too much control. Education is funded primarily at the state and local level and that is where decisions should be made about what is best for local students. Maybe a state wants to experiment with choice, vouchers, or charter schools. Unless we try new ideas, we’ll remain stuck in the past.

The education unions have too much power. The best teachers are allowed, even encouraged through seniority systems, to leave the schools that need them most. The schools with the worst social conditions are left in the hands of the least-experienced teachers. Often, the worst administrators in a district are assigned to these same schools. The results are a disaster… no hope for improvement. By the time students are applying for colleges, “affirmative action” is required to offset inaction during early education. College is not the time for remediation.

Our funding methods and union policies guarantee struggling schools will remain struggling.

I support “Robin Hood” funding: equalized per-student distribution of funds assisting areas with lower average incomes and weak tax foundations. Property taxes are used in most states as the funding source for schools. Expensive homes mean more taxes, and therefore better schools. This tax system means the best schools are in the best neighborhoods. Since people often move based upon schools, this structure creates a cycle. “Robin Hood” funding enhances the likelihood that disadvantaged areas might improve their schools.

Reliance on property taxes and bonds for school funding is absurd. Ideally, states would make education a top priority and local governments could concentrate monies on infrastructure maintenance and improvement. States should not using lotteries or other schemes as a basis for educational funding. What lesson does this teach? In a democracy we should be instilling the idea that we have opportunities to earn a better future. A lottery does not teach the value of earning anything… and it makes a mockery of the value of an education.

Free Speech

As a writer, there is nothing more sacred to me than free speech and the expression of ideas. Other Western democracies do not offer the protections provided to writers in the United States. While these freedoms mean some offensive ideas must be tolerated, I would rather know what people think than be protected from their idiocy.

Having the freedom to say or write or paint whatever I want to express does not guarantee that anyone will or should pay me for what I create. Free speech does not mean the public should pay for public expressions. I do not support federal government funding of the arts, in general. Research has shown most such funding benefits the wealthiest Americans. It seems the middle-class and poor do not listen to National Public Radio or attend local symphonies. As for Public Broadcasting, Sesame Street and Barney should be paying PBS for the great advertising.

Religion

When asked, I admit that I reject the notion of a specific and identifiable Creator. I am not an atheist. I do not believe a sentient Creator exists as we might understand the concept of a deity. Some might prefer the term “agnostic” because I accept the possibility a Creative Force might exist, though not as a traditionally understood deity.

Then again, maybe we are a science experiment, something out of a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon.

I do not accept there is an intelligent life form or supernatural being that acted willfully to create mankind.

This rejection does not imply that I do not want to believe in a Creator. I believe most people want to imagine a “higher power” for some comfort. Nor does it mean I live my life trying to convince others their faiths are meaningless. My nature is not comfortable with the notion of a supernatural Creator, but anything is possible. There might be a semantic argument over the terms “logic” and “faith.”

Logic has too many definitions to use the term without referencing the logical model being utilized. Purists argue that logic is simply the reduction of relationships into a unambiguous symbolic system. I favor what has been called phenomenological, mathematical, or scientific logic. This is “deductive” logic, and works only within brackets.

Consider that what we consider a “stationary” object through scientific observation is only “stationary” in relation to the earth. A scientist assumes certain data to represent only a small portion of existence. I can claim something moves at a specific speed, but that speed in in relation to the earth, the solar system, and the universe. Science works within larger relationships — which would otherwise overwhelm us.

Philosophical “logic” is actually a rhetorical device. There is little “logic” because philosophy attempts to prove opinions. Modern philosophers go so far as to reduce the possibility of any “truth” or certainties. What you experience personally is the only truth, and that truth is also suspect. Modern philosophical “logic” conflicts with what one might call “true logic” due to philosophy’s reliance upon individual proofs — the proofs human beings can understand. In other words, what I cannot prove to myself, I cannot accept on a logical basis — but I can accept on faith.

Faith is important to me and most other humans. Faith and logic are, at least using the definitions utilized in modern philosophy, at odds but not exclusive: eventually I might prove those concepts in which I have faith. Faith is “accepting as fact that which cannot be mathematically or scientifically proven beyond all doubt.” Notice the phrase "all doubt" and its importance.

Blaise Pascal applied mathematical logic to support his faith, not to define it. Pascal suggested that since there is a statistical possibility a Creator exists, no matter how miniscule the likelihood, the associated risks of rejecting faith were too great. Hence, Pascal suggested faith was logical in that it offered security if there was a Creator. If no Creator exists, nothing was lost by having faith. Risk assessment depends upon how one measures the risk.

Of course, if humanity and life on this random little planet happened, then there is every reason to assume life is not unique to this dot in the universe. We are rare, but are we alone? That seems unlikely.

My Faith

Despite my agnosticism, I am religious. My religion is not logical, as Kierkegaard noted, because faith cannot be logical. I do not believe in a Creator, or in a universal force, but rather in the special nature of life. Life might not have any universal meaning, but it is an amazing gift, to be cherished and protected. I can develop no logical argument for the preservation of life beyond self-interest. As you will read in the next section of this document, I believe all morality is a matter of self-interest, not a higher power.

Life is miraculous, no matter how we ended up existing.

My spirituality, my religion, is a respect for all life; and this respect for life is self-serving. If I respect the lives around me, I expect others to respect my existence. Do not think that I oppose the concept of a Creator; I sometimes find myself wanting to believe in something more — but desire alone is not enough.

As some have noted, I do respect the traditions of my family (though recent generations are secular). I have a great deal of respect for the historical beliefs of my family, while those beliefs are not necessarily my own. I do not actively observe the holidays of Christianity or Judaism or any other faith, but I appreciate their historical and social importance. I cannot disprove articles of faith, so I do not and would not try to alter the beliefs of my family or friends. After all, my “faith” is in science, which is theoretical — and often proven incorrect. Science at least tries to adhere to facts and reality, which matters to me.

People of faith have been great leaders, supporting individual freedoms while also reminding us that humanity exists as communities.

Because religious beliefs have shaped our cultures, I spend a lot of time reading about faith. If you want good primers on faith and culture, I recommend the works of Stephen Prothero. Though I disagree with some of her simplifications, I also suggest reading Karen Armstrong. Unfortunately, too few people are familiar with the religious philosophers Karl Barth, Martin Buber, Reinhold Niebhur, and Paul Tillich.

Paradox of Immortality

For many individuals, immortality promises to give life some greater meaning. I do not understand how this is, since I perceive no greater meaning to my life if I live one day or a million days. Still, human beings have alternately searched for and constructed reasons to fear immortality. In searching for immortality, humans developed religious beliefs promising an afterlife or a continuing existence in this reality. Either as an afterlife or as reincarnation, the idea of perpetual existence offers comfort to many.

Immortality seems to be a “universal” desire.

Others, notably those attracted to science fiction, place some faith in the ability of mankind to overcome what is currently known about physics. This faith in another universe, an enduring existence, gives some people a reason to live. These people consider the continuation of the human species a form of immortality. This need for continuity can be traced to the idea of heirs and lineage. People have children so those children can “carry on” the family genes — a form of immortality. Unfortunately, few people are actually remembered by future generations, so this continuity is a brief illusion.

If it were proven beyond question that there was nothing more to life, no promise of an ongoing human existence, would these people then cease to care about life? Others find other theories to grasp, dreaming that our species will overcome the limits of known space. I believe mankind will remain in this solar system, then vanish. Still, I do like the fantasy mankind will leave the universe and life will exist forever.

Once a person recognizes immortality is not possible, then the individual begins to search for reasons to affirm death as a desired end. As evidence of this, society has developed a series of myths depicting immortality as a curse, a form of eternal punishment. The most notable of these myths is that of the vampire, though many others exist. We look to convince ourselves that it is not desirable to live beyond a certain time. By choosing to reinforce the idea life was meant to be brief, we are better equipped to cope with death. After all, who would want to be alive during the end of the solar system?

I do enjoy life, and hope to experience a rather long life. I see no reason to end my own existence. No matter how meaningless existence is, it is still quite interesting. There are many things I hope to do during my life, for my own enjoyment. Because I do not expect to have an afterlife and do no care if future generations remember me, I am free to act now as I want.

Philosophy

I am not an existentialist, nor do I stake any claim upon the philosophy. I do find some writings associated with existentialism match my own experiences of human nature, but that does not make me an existentialist. The core beliefs of my philosophy include:

  • My actions define me to myself and others,
  • Others define me, to the community and to myself,
  • I am responsible for my actions,
  • I possess a strong free will, and
  • What I was and am does not control what I will be.

I must exist within society, since I enjoy the benefits of the modern world. I am unlikely to permanently surrender electricity, computers, or even television… even if I do take breaks from those luxuries. Wanting to exist within current society, I conform at some level. I carefully choose when my beliefs justify violating a social or legal norm.

There are two views within “existentialism” regarding self-definition. Sartre observed that other people define us. What we do in private does shape us, but it does not define us because we are known to others by what is observed. Nietzsche suggested self-definition is possible, though one is then alienated from humanity.

I can try to claim that what others think of me does not matter, but in fact I define myself with the help of others. Other people are necessary for self-evaluation. Without others, we have no inherent meaning. Even rejecting other people is an act of self-definition. Try as we might, we use others as measures with which to compare our own lives.

Neither Existentialist nor Nihilist

Some readers of my works have asked if I am a nihilist or an existentialist. I am neither, and “serious” students of philosophy would agree that I represent no major school well. I am not searching for a school of thought, only my own path, which occasionally intersects with others.

As defined by some scholars, I contend these two schools of thought are not exclusionary, but rather complement each other. Few existentialists were (or are?) nihilists, and not every nihilist an existentialist. Existentialism is a “large tent” philosophy, accommodating a variety of political and religious beliefs. Nihilism, however, is quite specific in its rejection of the “truth” of social structures.

Nihilism
(1) The belief there is no meaning or purpose in existence. (2) The general rejection of customary beliefs in morality, religion, and social norms.
Existentialism
A philosophy that the individual is free and responsible for his or her acts. This responsibility is the source of dread, anguish, and anxiety.

I admit to embracing fragments of both philosophies. I find no cosmic meaning in existence. I also reject society as the source of my morality, though I recognize the need to work within society much of the time. My existential tendencies translate into an acceptance of responsibility, especially when I willingly challenge societal norms. I recognize my beliefs are not universal and accept the consequences of not feigning agreement with the communities in which I exist.

Absurd Existence

My philosophy begins with the recognition that in the end all existence is without greater meaning and is therefore absurd. The universe will either expand until all energy is dissipated or everything will collapse into a single point of energy. In either case, long before the universe dies, our solar system will cease to exist. The existence of mankind, the earth, the solar system, and even the universe is for nothing. There is no greater meaning.

Once it is possible to accept there is no greater meaning to existence, it is possible to confront the anxiety of being without meaning. I exist — that is the only fact of which I am certain. 

I know some philosophy students fall prey to the notion existence cannot be proven, but that is nonsense. I can measure my mass, there is anecdotal evidence of my interactions with others, and I react to my environment. The rhetoric of denying existence is a game in which I do not indulge. If you doubt you exist, that is your problem, not mine. I have no such doubts. Even if I am a spot on petri dish gel or an electrical impulse in another creature’s mind, I exist. I hold the nihilistic position that nothing can be proven beyond a doubt, so I accept I exist as a matter of faith.

Yet after proclaiming my existence, I am not able to endow this existence with universal meaning. I live. I will die. Eventually, all life will vanish. In the end, it was pointless to even try to prove I existed, since that existence was without enduring consequence.

Continental, Analytical
and other meaningless debates

I have been trying to understand the differences between Continental Philosophies and English/Analytical Philosophies. I admit to confusion, even with years of study. Analytic schools worry more about words and meanings than metaphysical philosophy.

Words mean things only within a greater context. Deconstructed, human communications lose meaning.

With no intention to offend those focused on linguistic philosophies, I honestly differ with attempts to read too much into words and their meanings. There are too many lexicons in philosophy for any of them to hold perfect meaning. Worse, translation obscures many philosophical works. Words have meanings on too many levels for them to be the ideal communication tools.

I develop opinions based upon those of others, as we all do. The number and complexity of ideas to which I am exposed is controlled by others and, to a lesser extent, me. The media are a primary input, but they do not supersede parents, educators, and peers. No one person has individual opinions unless isolated from human interactions or devices, which is not possible. Notice that I dare not say “unique” opinions, but even a one with a new idea seeks reinforcement.

Flawed Input

I can evaluate nature and opinions based solely upon the inputs I receive. These inputs are imperfect, especially when filtered through another person or the instruments of others. Animals possess better senses, so even basic textures, sights, and sounds are to be questioned.

What I know is what I experience, which is flawed, and what I am told… which is also flawed. Human decisions are therefore calculated risks based upon faith in the reliability of these flawed inputs.

Too often philosophers seek “truth” when the only truth about human existence is uncertainty. I belive in facts, even as those might relate to human neurology, and in a definite reality. I simply know that these Truths are beyond what people can understand. I like facts; facts are my security. Unfortunately, I also know facts do not help me understand people.

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Random Reflections on Humanity

The views and observations appearing within this page are merely random thoughts on the nature of humans. In no way are these thoughts complete or academic in nature. Read the embedded warnings.