Meaning:Part I

Posted November 17, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Uncategorized

When we speak of the meaning of life, we need in the first instance to consider the meaning of existence. For the ultimate question that lies behind this discussion is the why and wherefore of anything at all. Leaving life aside, why is there any material existence here or anywhere else in the universe? The easiest answer is to posit the existence of God or some other prime mover. The problem with this is that there is always the question of where this individual or power or force came from. So that brings us back to the first question again. This is essentially the question that I ask when I hear about the Big Bang theory. The Big Bang theory started everything. Yet of course it didn’t at all. It merely brought together pre-existing materials in such a way as to cause a gigantic explosion for which we are all thankful.

Now the meaning of life question simply adds a new layer to that of the meaning, or rather reason for, existence of any kind. Given certain pre-biologic materials and certain environmental conditions (temperature, mass. etc), it has been assumed that biological forms emerge more or less automatically. From this point we can sketch an exceedingly gradual and then accelerating biological evolution.

At some point, consciousness emerged in within biological forms. Initially, this was not reflective consciousness. It was, for example, the painful feeling that we imagine an animal suffers when it is injured in combat. On the positive side, most forms seem to enjoy eating or taking nourishment, or at least most animal forms do. Then at some point, this kind of consciousness evolved into a reflective consciousness, a form ascribed to human beings, but not necessarily only to human beings. This is the consciousness that allows one to think about what he’s been thinking about, or, for example, to think about the future of his family and the inevitability of death.


Meaning: Part II

Posted November 17, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Uncategorized

So far we’ve only been discussing the context in which we must consider the question of the meaning of life, or, more explicitly, the meaning of life for us as individuals. One could take the minimalist position of assuming that the meaning of life is inherent in reflective consciousness. It is somehow valuable to us to think about our thoughts, to mull over what we do and say and think in the course of a day. But this leaves us with an emotionless answer which seems to leave out what most people find valuable in their lives.

It seems to me that what most people find meaningful as they participate in reflective consciousness are stories, stories of their life as a whole, stories of particular episodes in their life stories that occur only in dreams, or even daydreams in which they figure more prominently than they might in real events. Even when one is in a hospital bed, perhaps close to the end of his life, the remaining meaning is likely to be in the visits of relatives and staff — past present and future (where these three are quite foreshortened). Our participation in stories is so attractive that we may spend much of our time immersed in novels or watching movies that depict stories which we can participate in without actually participating.

This hard rock of meaning as narrative may not have much moral content. We do of course gain meaning from having done what we feel to be meritorious acts, or acts in which we take pride. We want to feel that we are contributing to the life of others in small ways and large, or have in the past. But for most people I suspect that this moral meaning is less immediate and sustaining than participation in life narratives at various levels.

Jim Leach’s Address to the Convention

Posted September 9, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, education, morality, philosophy

For me, the most useful speech at the conventions was the short discussion by former Republican Representative Jim Leach of Iowa. He used a discussion of some of the best features of our political tradition as a background to his commitment to supporting Obama.

The full text of Jim Leach’s Speech to Democratic National Convention follows:

“As a Republican, I stand before you with deep respect for the history and traditions of my political party. But it is clear to all Americans that something is out of kilter in our great republic. In less than a decade America’s political and economic standing in the world has been diminished. Our nation’s extraordinary leadership in so many areas is simply not reflected in the partisan bickering and ideological politics of Washington. Seldom has the case for an inspiring new political ethic been more compelling. And seldom has an emerging leader so matched the needs of the moment.

“The platform of this transformative figure is a call for change. The change Barack Obama is advocating is far more than a break with today’s politics. It is a clarion call for renewal rooted in time-tested American values that tap Republican, as well as Democratic traditions.

“Perspective is difficult to bring to events of the day, but in sweeping terms, there have been four great debates in our history to which both parties have contributed. The first debate, led by Thomas Jefferson, the first Democrat to be elected president, centered on the question of whether a country could be established, based on The Rights of Man.

“The second debate, led by Abraham Lincoln, the first Republican to be elected president, was about definitions—whether The Rights of Man applied to individuals who were neither pale nor male. It took almost two centuries of struggle, hallmarked by a civil war, the suffrage and abolitionist movements, the Harlem renaissance and a courageous civil rights leadership to bring meaning to the values embedded in the Declaration of Independence.

“The third debate, symbolized by the new deal of Franklin Roosevelt and the emphasis on individual initiative of Ronald Reagan, involves the question of opportunity, whether rights are fully meaningful if all citizens are not given a chance to succeed and provide for their families.

“The fourth debate, which acquired grim relevance with the dawn of the nuclear age, is the question of whether any rights are possible without peace and environmental security.

“The American progressive tradition reflected in these debates spans Democratic standard bearers from the prairie populist William Jennings Bryan to the Camelot statesman, John F. Kennedy. It includes Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt, who built up the National Parks system and broke down corporate monopolies, and Dwight David Eisenhower, who ran on a pledge to end a war in Korea, brought a stop to European colonial intervention in the Middle East, quietly integrated the Washington, D.C., school system and not so quietly sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to squash segregation in public schools throughout the country.

“In models of international statecraft, progressive leadership includes Al Gore, who helped galvanize worldwide understanding of the most challenging environmental threat currently facing the planet, and our current president’s father, who led an internationally sanctioned coalition to oust Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.

“In Congress, Democratic senators like Pat Moynihan and Mike Mansfield served in Republican administrations. On the Republican side, Arthur Vandenberg helped President Truman launch the Marshall Plan, and Everett Dirksen backed Lyndon Johnson’s landmark civil rights legislation.

“In troubled times, it was understood that country comes before party, that in perilous moments mutual concern for the national interest must be the only factor in political judgments. This does not mean that debate within and between the political parties should not be vibrant. Yet what frustrates so many citizens is the lack of bipartisanship in Washington and the way today’s Republican Party has broken with its conservative heritage.

“The party that once emphasized individual rights has gravitated in recent years toward regulating values. The party of military responsibility has taken us to war with a country that did not attack us. The party that formerly led the world in arms control has moved to undercut treaties crucial to the defense of the earth. The party that prides itself on conservation has abdicated its responsibilities in the face of global warming. And the party historically anchored in fiscal restraint has nearly doubled the national debt, squandering our precious resources in an undisciplined and unprecedented effort to finance a war with tax cuts.

“America has seldom faced more critical choices: whether we should maintain an occupational force for decades in a country and region that resents western intervention or elect a leader who, in a carefully structured way, will bring our troops home from Iraq as the heroes they are. Whether it is wise to continue to project power largely alone with flickering support around the world or elect a leader who will follow the model of General Eisenhower and this president’s father and lead in concert with allies.

“Whether it is prudent to borrow from future generations to pay for today’s reckless fiscal policies or elect a leader who will shore up our budgets and return to a strong dollar. Whether it is preferable to continue the policies that have weakened our position in the world, deepened our debt and widened social divisions or elect a leader who will emulate John F. Kennedy and relight a lamp of fairness at home and reassert an energizing mix of realism and idealism abroad.

“The portfolio of challenges passed on to the next president will be as daunting as any since the Great Depression and World War II. This is not a time for politics as usual or for run-of-the-mill politicians. Little is riskier to the national interest than more of the same. America needs new ideas, new energy and a new generation of leadership.

“Hence, I stand before you proud of my party’s contributions to American history but, as a citizen, proud as well of the good judgment of good people in this good party, in nominating a transcending candidate, an individual whom I am convinced will recapture the American dream and be a truly great president: the senator from Abraham Lincoln’s state—Barack Obama. Thank you.”

Would that we had more legislators like Jim Leach. One can only hope that in the near future he enters the pantheon of leaders that his speech adumbrates

Simplistic Thinking

Posted July 1, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Uncategorized


The New York Times op-ed columnist Bob Herbert weighs in today with an argument that we should all admit that we went into Iraq essentially for oil. He mentions several forms of proof of this. The latest is the role of State Department employees in the awarding of subcontracts for improving all production in Iraq. He supplements this with many other indications that this is what we were about all along, going back to the protecting of the oil ministry in Baghdad rather than any other ministries or institutions in the days immediately after our victory

The problem with all this is that Herbert imagines that he can find an explanation for our invasion. In fact, the invasion of Iraq, like many other actions made by leaders or even ordinary people was a complex result of many factors. Some in the administration did want to democratize Iraq. They have been influenced by or work partners in a long-term effort to have the United States play a more active role in democratizing the world. Some in the administration saw all the Middle Eastern affairs in terms of Israel. If we could defuse Iraq as a center of opposition to our policies we would have the same time be strengthening our ability to preserve the independence of Israel. Many in Washington saw the continued human rights violations by Saddam Hussein is a blot that had to be removed. Since the United Nations would not act we would have too. Others were concerned with the independence of Kurdistan, an independence that could not be guaranteed as long as Hussein was there. Many believe that George W. Bush wanted to show that he could do what his father failed to do after the first Gulf war. As is often the case, many of the military services saw this war, as any war, could be an opportunity to show what could be done with new weapons and strategies. And, in spite of all the discussion that has gone on since the war started, it was believed by many people, and not only in Washington, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. This again was a danger to Israel

There is an overwhelming tendency of people to try to simplify complex issues. Yes, oil played a part. For some people it was probably the major reason. For others it was an important reason. But for many, it did not figure in the calculation — as ir might today. From this we should take a lesson.

Ignorance is no Defense

Posted April 5, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, education, philosophy, ways of life

In a New York Times Op-ed (March 30) Kristof raises the critical issue of the remarkable ignorance of Americans. He points out that compared with the people of other developed countries Americans are ignorant as a people and the leaders they select relatively uninformed. He points to numerous studies, showing, for example, the remarkable percentage of people who do not believe in evolution, as well as the general ignorance of Americans of geography outside the USA. Large percentages believe in UFOs, and about 20% believe the sun orbits the earth. In President Bush we probably have the only leader of a modern state who still believes that on evolution “the facts are still out”. Such facts force us to address the question why we have a larger intellectual vacuum at many levels of society than other developed countries?

To effectively address the issue we need to first establish the extent and the nature of the deficit. (I suspect that further investigation would show that the deficit begins with parents and teachers, and is then passed on to the young.) Next, we need to compare the American educational system with the systems of countries that particularly excel us in this regard. By educational system, I mean much more than the classroom. It includes media of all kinds and how they are actually used by people at different economic and cultural levels at different stages of life.

This investigation should be based on and help initiate a larger comparative study of the cultures of developed countries. So many of our critical social and institutional problems could be seen more clearly and be more successfully addressed if the experience of other advanced countries could be incorporated into our agenda for change. To fail to do this would unfortunately reinforce the argument for our comparative intellectual incompetence.

Sex in an Enlightened Society

Posted March 15, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: morality, philosophy, religion, ways of life

Elliot Spitzer has been caught in a media and federal web for arranging to meet a prostitute in a Washington hotel. He has now resigned as Governor of New York. This is only the latest in an endless series of political and social tragedies dating back to prehistory. Thinking about this “crime”, several points need to be made.

1. Most people have strong sexual desires from about age 12 to age 60. It is not possible to understand the strength of this desire in your neighbors (for eample, in men “normal” testosterone levels vary from 300 to 1000 units, with attendant effects on behavior)

2. These desires are hard for some people to satisfy within the confines of the social codes of their place and time. These vary widely. For example in Iranian Shiism, “Mut’ah” or “Sigheh” marriage is sanctioned. Some jurists insist that one can only have four sigheh marriages at a time; others disagree. Many societies have allowed sex before marriage, for example to prove fecundity.

3. Some will, inevitably, evade the codes of their social group on occasion.

4. Some societies make evasion a great crime; others understand and live with it. In older tyrannies, whether tribal or national, powerful men generally had access to a wide range of women (as we see in the Old Testament). Modern American and conservative islamic societies head the list of those who make sex outside marriage a major crime. (even in those islamic societies that allow sigheh).

5. “Prostitution” is the term used in our society for the form of evasion for which social or judicial punishment is most commonly exacted.

At this point we should stop and notice that keeping a mistress or having sex at the conclusion of a casual date are generally overlooked in many societies, including our own. Payments in kind seem to be generally accepted, but not in cash.

The Spitzer affair led to a number of op-eds in the NYTimes. Most of them argued that prostitution is not a victimless crime. The writers insist that laws against prostitution should be vigorously enforced, especially against the Johns. The argument is made on the basis that coercion is often involved. However, one prostitute offered an op-ed that said that if prostitution is conducted on a private referral basis, no one is hurt while all parties benefit.

It seems to me that coercion and mistreatment is what should be criminalized. Many service people are mistreated. Laws should perhaps be strengthened to cover coercion in the sex for hire business. Enforcement should be directed especially at the entrepreneurs who bring people across national boundaries for sex, or traffic in underage persons of either sex. If retail prostitution were decriminalized, it would be much easier to gather evidence against the brutality and coercion by pimps and johns that are the real problem.

In an enlightened society, the importance of sexual relations of any kind will be downplayed at the same time that laws will be developed and enforced against any forms of oppression and cruelty in the family or outside it, whether or not sex is involved. It is time to lift society above slavish acceptance of inherited dogmas, deal with people as they are, placing law and condemnation on the side of humanity instead of prejudice.

Secularism Still “Winning”

Posted February 16, 2008 by R. D. Gastil
Categories: Blogroll, religion, ways of life

Those readers who might be discouraged by the inability of enlightenment ideas and ideals to replace the dedication to the superstitions of organized religion might be encouraged by reading Alan Wolfe’s “And the Winner is. . .” in the March Atlantic. He argues that the assumption that secular values are losing out to religious values is wrong.

His thesis is based too much, in my opinion, on the fact that the more wealthy countries become, the less religious they are — with the singular exception of the United States. Religious countries do tend to be poor countries, which is perhaps another way of saying that religious countries are relatively uneducated. After all, the pleasant Mr. Huckabee is probably the only major candidate in a while to not believe in the theory of evolution (although President Bush tinkers with the idea, I am not sure he has ideas).

It is remarkable that with all the talk of the evangelical vote and all the hype about Huckabee, and the fierce (if unconventional) religiosity of Romney, the Republican candidate in November will be a moderate, centrist who makes relatively little of his religiosity — while the democratic candidate will stick largely to a secular script with spiritual decorations.

Looking back at the world, the less progressive countries in Europe are the poorer cousins to the east. The rising stars of Asia are largely secular, with the notable exception of the Republic of Korea. A few years ago the secular Congress Party was ousted in India, but the Hindu nationalists have lost their steam and seem to be both less popular and less fanatic. Today’s New York Times tells us that Pakistan is actually much less religious and much less fanatic than we have been led to believe. The real heart of religion in the country is in the Sufi orders, and they notably believe in live and let live. We hear relatively little of them in the news because they are generally apolitical. Elsewhere in the country, the people are sick and tired of the Taliban. In the upcoming parliamentary election, the religious parties are expected to lose out nearly everywhere, including the Northwest Frontier Province.

Another strong current within the religious communities, even in the Middle East and Africa, is an evangelism that sees religion as the road to wealth and pleasure. This new current is found in Egypt and Nigeria. In the latter, there is even a competition between a Christian and Muslim versions of this gospel of wealth and pleasure. This may be religion, but I doubt it is what the enlightened have feared.