What is Love? (baby don’t hurt me)

So let’s get one thing out of the way- the title of my blog is Amorinoblog because that’s just my last name. But I think it was Jung who said that names sometimes direct the course of a person’s life in unseen ways. The deep unconscious definitely exists, that’s one thing I know for a fact through my experiences as a person. My unconscious is constantly operating and making connections for me and directing my life in ways I never consciously could. But a friend recently drew my attention to the fact that my blog could be read as “amor (love) in blog”. Now that’s something.

My last name is Portuguese in origin, and it translates to cupid or little love, the diminutive form of love. I don’t know the origin of this name or why it was the name of a family in Portugal, but I’ve always felt that my name has a certain guiding role for me or spiritual kind of power. At least personally. In Tibetan culture, indeed most cultures outside of the West, names have power, they are more directly attached to things in the world, their meanings aren’t obscure or etymological. But using Tibetan/Bhutanese culture as an example, children are named after holy or auspicious things such as jewels (Pema) and holy sceptres (Dorje). Sometimes they are just named Karma, pretty straightforward. Name is destiny. Tenzin Gyatso, the name of the Dalai Lama, literally means Ocean of Wisdom.

So what is love? Love for most of us is the personal feeling of loving specifically another person. It is based on certain characteristics about a person, based on familial familiarity, on things like kinship or friendship. Is love these things? On a relative level, the answer has to be yes. Simply “letting go” of these attachments often doesn’t work or is detrimental. But is love an attachment?

First of all, in my mind, there can be attachment that mutually fulfills two people, and attachment that is essentially negative in character. But the fundamental insight that the Buddha had was that love is based on the desire for permanence, a permanence that cannot ultimately be satisfied. Attachment leads to suffering. This does not mean that breaking attachments does not lead to suffering as well.

Is it possible to love without being attached? I think this is the meaning of karuna, or the Sanskrit term for compassion. In ultimate karuna, there is no desire for ANY kind of repayment in one’s love. Most love is selfish- it wants to be loved. Kind of like the John Lennon Love is Real- “Love is wanting to be loved”. Well hate to disagree with John, but real love does not need anything in return. A mother’s love approaches this kind of love, it is a good model for thinking about it, but even a mother desires her son or daughter to repay them with kindness, and this should be our desire as well. But this should, this ethical dimension to love, is what is lacking I think in people’s everyday understanding of love.

Christian love, brotherly love- this of course approaches this concept as well. But ultimately, even Christian dogma reproduces the idea that God is a “jealous” god (maybe more Judaism, but its still in the Bible, so sorry Slavoj). Now from a Buddhist point, the idea that God is jealous is very strange. The whole idea of divinity in Eastern religion is based on the idea that one has achieved liberation from negative emotion. The essential insight of Buddhist psychology is the idea of the near enemy. Love has as its near enemy jealousy, determination has as its near enemy stubbornness, and so on. Maybe the Nichomachean ethics is like this as well, but I’m not sure.

So maybe it could be phrased like this- love is a desire, but Love is a desire to not only help, but free any living being from suffering.

It is the identification of love purely with personal happiness that has caused many problems in our culture, even beyond material structural problems. It has caused us to ignore our neighbor, it has created callousness in the upper classes. This is why Jesus said “I come with the sword”, as well as the famous parable about the eye of the needle- because his message was one of righteous indignation at the treatment of the poor.

At the end of the day, its not that our understanding of love has to be reintegrated into any particular sort of Theology, as fundamentalists claim. True love for me actually isn’t God’s love, unless it is as an ideal. True love is compassion for the suffering.

I also believe, as Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche says in his book Not for Happiness, that we have to modify our Western idea of compassion as trying to materially aid the poor and the meek, the normal objects of compassion for probably most people. Ultimate highest compassion encompasses every single living thing, including our enemies, political or otherwise. For me this is a valuable lesson for leftist movements. We will never sway the masses with hatred. As much hate and resentment as we feel is justified for those that hoard resources at the expense of the “wretched of the Earth”, I feel fundamentally that the idea that revolution can only be achieved by violent revolution has to be wrong. For our mutual survival, it has to be wrong- the stakes are ultimately too high, in an age of nuclear weapons, to repeat the mistakes of the 20th century. Non-violence is the solution of the 21st century, where it was only a glimmer of hope in the 20th.

To me, one of the best exemplars and expressions of love in the recent past was Martin Luther King Jr. He represents for many people still today the hope and promise of a better tomorrow, a real fighter for social justice, who was not afraid to call out hypocrisy, but used his prophetic voice to advocate for a higher calling. It is people like MLK, Bishop Oscar Romero, the Dalai Lama- in short, advocates of Peace and Human Rights, who knew and advanced our notion of what love is. It is fitting that two of the people I just mentioned won the Nobel Prize for Peace, and one of them is in the process of becoming beatified as a saint.

I don’t want to turn this into a debate about non-violent vs. violent tactics of the oppressed- all I know is that despite certain gains made by violent revolution, they came at great cost, and often reproduced systems of oppression in the long run. Whether non-violent revolutions like the Indian revolution ultimately worked is a different story. But I know that our message now for how to change our world has to not only be practical but ethical. Non-violence or ahimsa is both practical and ethical. 

As the Dalai Lama says, “if you have to be selfish, be selfish wisely- love others!”

Also, kudos to the developers of wordpress for making it so that it saves your draft as you write. I accidentally swiped left on my keyboard and thought I lost my post. Saves a whole lot of frustration with that feature

OM MANI PADME HUM

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Trump is a symptom, not the disease

Why is Trump so terrifying for many people? Because he represents the ascendancy of the anti-immigrant far right to mainstream American politics. He is an almost openly racist President, as opposed to a closeted one.
But what is different about Trump that wasn’t already embodied in someone like Ted Cruz or the Tea Party? What’s scary about Trump is that he represents the non-“moderate” wing of the Republican party winning. McCain was a notorious “maverick” and spoke softly, and Mitt Romney also presented himself as a moderate. But those were lies.
Furthermore, past US presidents were also notoriously racist, and in recent memory Nixon particularly comes to mind. The war in Vietnam was a fundamentally racist endeavor. Reagan’s anti-welfare campaign was racist at its core (he popularized the term ‘welfare queen’).
And yet its the anti-immigrant xenophobic rhetoric and actions that make Trump the pariah in the mainstream media (CNN) and has polarized the nation. And yet, when Obama became dubbed “deporter in chief” it barely got any news coverage.
I’ve seen Trump top the list of worst presidents of all time after only 2 years in office. But it would be a victory for the right and for Trump if he managed to make us lose our collective historical memory and forget the horrible policies of the Bush and Reagan administrations. The scandals, the corruption, the racism: now its all out in the open. This is a boon for the left, not a doomsday scenario. The worst possible take from this is that we need to return to the “moderate center”. It was the moderate center that gave us Trump in the first place by their continual failures.
A hardline immigration stance has been a mainstay of Republican politics for many years. So why is Trump such an abominable figure? Why do people continue to absolve people like John McCain, who voted with Trump 83% of the time? If Trump is a nightmare, and McCain is a hero, then by that logic Trump is 83% hero.
The problem is, to the media, its style over substance, rhetoric over policy, sound bytes over reality. McCain was no leader of the resistance, and neither is Chuck Schumer or Nancy Pelosi, who continue to kow tow to Trump’s demands for greater military spending and refused to fight when it came to his nominations for significant positions.
Trump is the symptom of the rot in American society, not the cause.
The veiled rhetoric of the Reagan administration (welfare queens) is being gradually replaced by overtly racist messaging. But at the same time, we should understand that the actions of the Trump administration fall under the historical category of protectionism, which has a long history in the US as well. It is not the first time immigration policy has been the focus of US politics (the Chinese exclusion act) nor will it be the last. As hard as it is for liberals to admit, illegal immigration is a problem, and as much we must be committed to the human rights of refugees and international migrants escaping poverty and war from third world countries, we must see it as a problem so we can attack the problem at its source. Illegal immigration is driven partly by US policies on trade and past US interference in Central and Latin American governments. This has continued to this day, with Hillary Clinton supporting a coup in Honduras in 2009 that drove instability in the region and caused a wave of migration from Honduras.
So in a bizarre way, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama helped get Trump elected!
Perhaps it was even more direct than that. Wikileaks released cables that provide evidence that Clinton ran what is known as the pied piper strategy because Clinton polled more favorably against far right candidates than moderates (because there isn’t that big of a difference between them).
To astute political historians and avid leftists, this all comes as no shock. What may come as a shock is that despite all this, we still need to work within the confines of the existing democratic system. That is where the legitimate fight is, and if you care about short-term policy victories as well as long-term political strategy, we still need to play the political game and defeat Trump electorally. Somehow, we should not kow tow to the “lesser of two evils” mantra that brought us to the situation we are in today. Nevertheless, we should realize that leftists can’t win every battle, and sometimes the ideological ground is not ripe for success. The majority of Americans supported the Vietnam War, for instance: there was a massive protest movement, but politics reflect the ideological state of a country. A revolution will never work if there is not the cultural groundwork for it.
Therefore, the ascendancy of social democrats and social democracy (and even the term “democratic socialism” is an immensely positive trend in American politics today. Not only does it represent a real political alternative to the politics of yesteryear, it is a starting point from which to achieve real radical change.
The recognition that the Trump administration represents something new and dangerous is a good thing for the previously “apolitical” American mind, but it is based fundamentally on an ideological obscuring of the real problems. Perhaps that is why Al Jazeera ran an opinion piece on the new Spike Lee movie BlackKKKlansmen that was a very strident and vehement critique. To some extent, the movie does feed into the larger liberal mentality of “Trump bad, Democrats good”. But the problem is that we shouldn’t completely dismiss what the Trump administration is: it is the ascendancy of the far-right. David Duke did endorse Trump. It is frustrating that blockbuster movies can’t focus on Palestine or other more disturbing human rights issues, but that simply wouldn’t make good material for a hit political comedy.
The truth is, Americans always look at their own problems first. Trump dominates every headline of CNN and MSNBC, and meanwhile Yemen is in tatters. World news simply doesn’t matter as much to the insular and largely content American populous. If Al Jazeera and a professor of Iranian studies is frustrated by lack of focus on imperialism, he should recognize that that is the uphill ideological battle that America has been fighting for a century. Imperialism is one of the fundamental contradictions of modern global politics: it is our collective blindspot, and this isn’t a uniquely American problem. Europe is also to blame. Tony Blair shares the blame with Bush for Iraq.
So as bad as Trump is, we should recognize that when viewed through the lens of foreign policy, there is no recognizable difference between him and any other administration. In fact, Trump may even be slightly better when it comes appeasement of North Korea, preventing conflict with Russia, etc.
The Trump-Russia story is the pinnacle of what is wrong with liberal politics today. A long and worn out legal battle involving Trump administration officials and an unlikely impeachment over “meddling” obscures the actual policies of Trump vis-a-vis Russia, which are largely hawkish. In Lacanian-Zizekian terminology, Trump-Russia represents the objet-petit-a, the unattainable desire, of the liberal establishment, and the traumatic kernel of the Real that America refuses to recognize continues to be our involvement in the Middle East during the Bush administration and beyond. The true weight of the moral atrocities that occurred there, and continue to occur there, due to the US and our imperialist meddling, have yet to be fully realized. Therefore, the “political awakening” to the Trump administration, and the rise in activism around it, is a mixed blessing, because it represents the possibility for further collective forgetting and mis-remembering.
To use a spatial analogy, things that occur in our own backyard, such as mass shootings, far right hate group protests, have a direct traumatic impact because they are imprinted into the American collective memory because of literal spatial proximity. The deaths of hundreds of thousands overseas, on the other hand, remain a statistic, separated by oceans and borders, only made real by TV broadcasts. The American collective imagination always lags by a few decades: the reason 911 was so traumatic was not only did it kill so many people, but America was open to outside attack after so many decades. Our lashing out at this king of offenses in Afghanistan and Iraq was the typical hysterical reaction: an eye for a leg. It is the logic of revenge writ large, born out by America’s fundamentally xenophobic ethos. Our borders are sacred, our sovereignty is supremely sacred, so much so that we can violate other countries sovereignty to maintain our own. In short, it is the logic of America First. 
Thus, we should recognize that while Trump is vocalizing the axiomatic of American exceptionalism and supremacy, this logic was inherent to American politics and history, perhaps since the beginning (Manifest Destiny). Trump is a rule, not an exception, the logical culmination of centuries of American history. It is traumatic only because it is subjectively experienced as a present reality and because it is not viewed in the proper historical context. The present is always more shocking than the past: the immigration crisis is more worrying than Vietnam, because it already happened. But if we want to get out of this mess, we need a properly materialist and firm grasp of history (perhaps even a dialectical one).
Is Trump a fascist? Yes, but Nixon was a fascist, and Reagan was a fascist, and so was Obama and Clinton too. They are all fascists of one form or another, if we are going to play lose with terminology. More aptly put, the American system is more fundamentally authoritarian than the establishment would like you to believe. This should not create more political apathy, but a truly revolutionary change from within: within our consciousnesses and minds, in order to break the chains of mental enslavement to the status quo

“STEM prejudice”: why biological anthropology and archaeology are more popular than cultural anthropology

This article is essentially a repost of a comment I gave to a question on a Reddit forum called r/askanthropology. I thought I pretty much hit the right points. This is the original question on the forum:

“Why does this sub lean so heavily towards physical anthropology subfields, and how can cultural and linguistic anthros get in on more of the action?

I’ve been contemplating this a lot. At my university, in 1964, the #1 requested new department by undergraduates was anthropology. Now, students have not idea what anthropology is, and if they do, it’s usually what I see in this thread — questions that assume primitiveness, looking into the past, etc.

I deeply value and appreciate archaeology, primatology, evolutionary, and all other biological or physical anthropologies. But cultural anthropology has, bar none, the best tools among the social sciences and humanities for understanding the world as we live in it today, and it seems that so many are missing out on this because of assumptions that cultural anthropologists only study “the primitive” — a concept that we almost entirely threw out decades ago! It’s like, in public perception, cultural anthro is still stuck in the 1970s.

It’s extra frustrating, because among most grad students and junior faculty I know across the social sciences, many are reading contemporary cultural and linguistic anthropology to make up for some of the shortfalls in their disciplines — I’ve met sociologists, education studies, geographers, political scientists, and historians who feel this way, and enjoy reading contemporary ethnography.

Some of it may also be other disciplines dumping on cultural anthro. I have heard folks from cultural studies, WGS, and sociology (of course) making very stereotyped tropes about the kinds of work we do, again reflecting that 1970s view of the discipline’s focus on the Other.

Part of this, I think, is the failure of the AAA and cult/ling anthros generally to do good outreach to the public. When our campus does a community outreach day, the cultural and ling anthros often don’t even bother to put up a table, because we don’t want to use racialized tropes to get across what we do. (And there’s understandable reluctance to have a presentation, on a fun day, that would run like “hey, this is what we understand about racisms, domination, subjectification, and social suffering and violence. Oh, and by the way, we understand in large part our complicity in the colonial endeavor, and here is how we’ve theoretically, and today, try to disassemble some of the structures and tropes we ourselves helped produce…”)

But surely there’s a better way to communicate our discipline in ways that excite or engage people. When students finally do “get” cultural anthropology, they’re often astounded and remain ‘anthropological thinkers’ for the rest of their lives.

But I wonder, how do we get out of this rut of misunderstanding and miscommuniciation? Cultural anthropology has changed my life profoundly and forever, and I wish I could better extend that to the public. Current public engagement projects are clearly failing. Apart from introducing anthropology as part of a standard high school curriculum, how do we get even those interested in anthropology — like those that come to this sub — to look beyond physical, and extend our concepts so that we can all understand the world we live in and ourselves in better and more interesting ways? I see more questions that are right in the wheelhouse of cultural and linguistic anthropology being asked over in the r/askhistorians sub than I do here…”

 

My response:

“I think the public has made an association of anthropology with biological anthropology and archaeology. Whenever I’m in a cab and someone asks me what I do and I say anthropology, they either want to talk about archaeology or human evolution. I think good outreach to the public might have something to do with it. As a cultural anthropologist I feel particularly strong about this and have noticed this in this subreddit.

I think its partially because, for better or worse, archaeology and biological anthropology have more “scientific prestige” and create more media-friendly stories about exciting discoveries of lost civilizations and ancient hominids. And to be fair, my interest in ancient Egypt and hominids was what led me to study anthropology in the first place, but I also had a burgeoning interest in world religions and cultures.

I think the public, for reasons that cannot be placed purely on anthropology (funding is severely lacking for cultural anthropology projects) is sometimes simply not interested in cultural anthropology. I think these reasons are largely cultural. Even interest in foreign “Others” seems to be waning next to interest in the “distant past”. In Western society, the “distant past” is a place of mysteries and semi-religious wonder- it’s interesting stuff! Learning about what fuels the conflicts in present day Myanmar or changing dynamics of tribal life in Papua New Guinea is, well, more esoteric to the average person. And I think they could be interested in these cultural anthropology matters, but I think a cultural shift has to occur. You mention other disciplines dumping on cultural anthropology- I think that plays a large part. There is a growing opinion, even among some anthropologists, that anthropology has moved too far from “science” and embraced things like postmodernism. Honestly, I have even experienced this kind of prejudice from archaeologists and biological anthropologists who simply don’t understand what we are doing.

One last note- anthropology has been moving away from study purely of the “primitive”. But non-Western societies are still one of the areas of expertise of cultural anthropologists, and it is unfortunate that more people don’t show an interest in specific cultures and societies that anthropologists specialize in. Melanesianists, Amazonianists, Africanists, etc. we all languish in obscurity now that people like Margaret Meade are no longer center stage in the minds of the American populous. Meade used to write popular news columns. Now the most famous people who write on cultural anthropology subjects, like Jared Diamond, aren’t even trained anthropologists and are actually biologists.

I think there is a larger cultural prejudice against the humanistic disciplines, “STEM prejudice”, and this translates into evaporating funding and a diminishing cultural prominence as public intellectuals. I also just think the public intellectuals of today (people like Steven Pinker, another neuroscientist who feels qualified to talk about anthropology) reflect the times we live in, when the world is no longer full of colonies and anthropology’s place as the prestigious experts on primitive societies no longer exists because we live in a more globalized world where the “Others” wear t-shirts and have cell phones. As you suggest, non-Western cultures no longer have as much of the “exoticism” that led the public to be attracted to cultural anthropology in the early 20th century. I think this has actually immensely helped anthropologists become more empathetic toward the cultures that they participate with, and the dreaded “postmodernism” can take a lot of credit in this regard. “

As an addition, I’d like to add that it also has to do with the continuing rationalization of society that Adorno described in the Dialectic of Enlightenment. You could also chock it up to Western logocentrism (a la Derrida).

 

 

Skeptic Magazine’s beef with Sam Harris’ view on torture

Skeptic Magazine’s “Torture Doesn’t Work”

You would expect that an avowedly atheist magazine editor would have “hawkish” views on terrorism and torture like the current guru of the New Atheists, Sam Harris. However, in this video, Skeptic Magazine’s Michael Shermer presents a morally courageous view on torture. My problem with the “New Atheists”, particularly Harris, have always been their conflation of their particular politics and with their notion of being heirs to the Enlightenment and their self-proclaimed rationalism. Nothing screams “Enlightenment” more than apologetics for the Iraq War, the biggest disaster and human rights violation of the 20th century, am I right?

Now, obviously Skeptic Magazine isn’t going to go full leftist and start calling out all the wars, incessantly saying why what the US is enabling (and doing) in Yemen is a violation of everything that makes us human. But at least they haven’t hit rock bottom and start making “Jack Bauer” analogies for why torture is a good thing. I think that combating pseudoscience and religious crackpots is a worthy goal, particularly in terms of calling out fundamentalism and its ties with the right-wing. That’s why I’m a huge fan of Secular Talk’s Kyle Kulinski, who frequently talks about the issue of right-wing fundamentalism in America.

The problem is you can’t divorce pure rationality from politics. Fundamentalism landed its biggest touchdown in the Bush administration, when “God” spoke to George W. on how there is a new “evil empire” and blind faith in American exceptionalism causes unheard-of carnage in the Middle East. It’s good to see that Skeptic Magazine is at least butting the status quo a little bit and isn’t doing non-stop Trump bashing at the expense of real issues. Now, I don’t read the magazine, they could be doing that, but at least this segment seems to disagree with that notion.

I have become more endeared to the idea that certain “superstitions” can lead to becoming detached from reality altogether. Belief in the paranormal is extremely high in the US while belief in our military is even higher. The two are correlated- both are ideological fantasies based on mistaken conceptions of reality. However, as Marx said a long time ago in the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, the critique of religion should evolve into the critique of political economy. The “skeptic” community has yet to evolve from necessarily 18th and 19th century polemics on rationality and Reason.

From Marx:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

It is, therefore, the task of history, once the other-world of truth has vanished, to establish the truth of this world. It is the immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, to unmask self-estrangement in its unholy forms once the holy form of human self-estrangement has been unmasked. Thus, the criticism of Heaven turns into the criticism of Earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” 

Therefore, the criticism of religion still plays a valid role in being a precursor to the infinitely more important material critique of embodied practices, such as torture.

However, can we establish a critique of something like torture without a moral foundation? That moral foundation does not have to be religious, but science itself cannot offer it. One can use data to find out that torture does not work, but I prefer the interpretation of the Catholic Church, who in their recent doctrinal change on the death penalty, say it is “an affront to the fundamental dignity of the human being [sic]”. It is this basic moral reasoning that, a priori and not a posteriori, that seems to be lacking in our culture. Perhaps this is where Buddhist philosophy can step in to talk about the role of unlimited compassion as the highest possible ideal.

Here we enter the long-trodden philosophical terrain of moral philosophy and the sophomoric debates surrounding utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative. Perhaps we should not seek to establish a “true” a priori moral ultimate in the supremely Western fashion of searching for the correct “theory” or “origin”, but rather simply take certain rules, like “the fundamental dignity of the human being” as being a starting point, an assumption of our system. In fact, if we begin to question or “deconstruct” these values, it can lead to all sorts of reactionary critiques of “humanism”.

As an anthropologist, despite the diversity of moral systems in cultures and my belief in cultural relativity, I do not espouse moral relativism even if I fervently believe that emphasizing cultural relativity can lead to a positive moral outcome. That is because the moral is always the foundation of any anthropologist’s endeavors, whether they like it or not.

And that seems to be the problem. The debate rages on in anthropology about female genital mutilation, and the debate rages on in international relations about the value of military intervention. Facts are employed by sides of these moral debates, but no consensus is possible. There seems to be only way to reconcile these debates: a dialectical process of viewing the world in totality which takes account of the major historical dynamics of the past few centuries, namely colonialism, slavery, capitalism, and imperialism. The FGM debate is seen in a new light through this historical lens, as is the value of military intervention. The history of nations and their power games strangely makes many moral problems clearer and provides (I believe) strong answers to these “dilemmas” if seem in the correct historical framework which recognizes the overriding power of capitalism and imperialism in the modern world system. Torture can be seen in this light as well. However, one could argue that capitalism and imperialism itself is in violation of this “fundamental dignity of the human person”, and they would be correct.

That is why Sam Harris basically bugs me. His ignorance of history knows no bounds, as his debate with Noam Chomsky makes extremely evident (see my prior post on the subject: Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky: Moral Vectors in current politics. His arguments in favor of intervention ignore historical precedent, ignore the biggest catastrophes of his lifetime (Vietnam) and betray a quintessentially American “we can never be wrong” mentality. It is the inability to morally scrutinize one’s own country that seems to be a failing of many Americans, who overwhelmingly support their own military. Trust in the military is the highest of any American institution, despite the fact that its the one that is robbing us blind. As Jimmy Dore says, we are a nation of adult alcoholics who keep making excuses for our abusive relationship. We are most attached to those who exploit us the most. Our biggest moral failures (our foreign policy coupled with our domestic policy on poverty) lie in plain sight, so close that they become almost the “background” or “wall paper” from which everything else emerges.

Some people may feel powerless in the face of such extreme moral poverty of our leaders or our institutions. But I would argue an even larger group of people is simply ignorant. What would Buddha have to say about political ignorance? More on that in another post.

For now I will continue to point to the massive failures of our leaders in foreign policy and our moral bankruptcy:

Yemen: The Forgotten War

 

The psychology behind UFOs: why do we believe?

UFO Skeptic Psychology article

In the era of the Simulacrum, no one can tell what’s true anymore. We couldn’t even tell what was true with our own eyes before with the faulty nature of memory and perception, but now with digital editing, computer simulation, and enhanced visual techniques, telling a genuine from a hoax even in terms of a picture of a mundane object is becoming an increasingly difficult task.

So picture yourself walking down a country road at night, and you see something that looks like a flying saucer in the air. Are you more likely to lose your sense of focus and believe it is the real deal, or pay close attention to the fact that it may be some lights strung to a weather balloon by some merry pranksters?

Many may find the argument in the skeptic article condescending. The argument that we can’t trust our own eyes implies that we are all crazy or that what we see on an everyday basis can’t be discerned properly. However, things are compounded when it comes to UFOs. They are almost universally seen at night when visibility is low. Secondly, there are things in the air, such as meteors, comets, planes, helicopters, and flares, not to mention more exotic things such as stealth bombers and weather balloons, which may appear for a moment to be like a UFO.

The article makes the argument that something like a UFO is too good to be true. It plays too deeply into what we want to be true. People who saw a purposeful hoax when told it was a haox refused to believe it and instead made up pseudoscientific explanations.

However, as I stated in my article Physics and New Age pseudoscience- so what if time is relative?, there are legitimate philosophical takeaways from the new developments in physics that are then used by quacks and New Age devotees to justify their ideologies (and sell books). Are there, despite all the New Age hype surrounding UFOs and aliens, despite all the hoaxes and abduction memories caused by hallucinations, any evidence for extraterrestrial visitation?

My hypothesis is that if we can, as the article suggests, eliminate certain lines of “evidence” for UFOs as being inherently suspect, then we can create a typology of lines of evidence that hierarchizes which types are greater than others.

Here is my hypothesis for a ranking of this kind:

  1. Undeniable visitation: This would be as if aliens landed on the White House lawn and made first contact. This kind would not need to be substantiated because presumably there is “nothing to hide”
  2. Mass sighting involving mass media: This would be as if a flying saucer was hovering clearly over Los Angeles and stayed there during the day, inviting world wide press coverage. Presumably, there would be “nothing left to hide” here as well

Because these two have never happened, the only way UFO believers can justify the idea that sightings are real is that UFOs visit us “in secret”. They do not want to be found.

Why is this suspect on face value? Because if they are truly “in secret”, and have the technology to fly millions of light years to Earth, then presumably they would have the technology to never be seen by us. However, let’s continue with the typology.

3. Mass sightings involving multiple videos and pictures: These actually exist, although what is seen is always unproven and could always be some kind of military craft. The famous Phoenix lights appear to be lights on a giant craft, but could be some kind of strangely aligned flares. These are especially interesting before the advent of digital editing software.

4. Video evidence from a singular person: This kind of evidence is becoming increasingly suspect in and of itself. If it cannot be substantiated by independent people (and things can be still be staged by hoaxers), then odds are it is an elaborate (or increasingly, with digital technology, simple) hoax.

The simple logic goes like this. What is easier to believe, a single vast government conspiracy surrounding extraterrestrials (implying the outlandish existence of these beings), or a bunch of mini-hoaxes perpetrated by self-motivating individuals? More than likely, people get creative in their spare time with digital software these days.

Nevertheless, I have to confess that I do not have a definitive answer about whether I “believe” in UFOs or not. Much of it is of course fun speculation and hype, much like ghosthunting and other paranormal hobbies. Sometimes, it is not easy to tell between those who hunt for ghosts as a hobby and true believers, who are often New Age spiritualists. However, the jury is still out for me. I find that the skeptic article above makes a bad argument for the nonexistence of a “UFO cover-up” purely in terms of their rationale (I still don’t believe in one). Their argument goes that Edward Snowden released a huge amount of CIA files, but none of them pertained to UFOs. However, that was not his line of work, and hypothetically, if they wanted to cover it up, it would “Super Top Secret”, not for lowly workers like Snowden to hack and find. This just goes to show you that even the reasoning of hardened skeptics are not infallible. However, I find their argument about the fallibility of our perception especially interesting from a philosophical perspective. Perhaps those who long for something in the sky just yearn for something more fulfilling spiritually. As Carl Jung stated many years ago, perhaps UFOs are our collective projection of a wish for psychic wholeness. Jung’s theory to date is the most insightful on how modern spirituality intersects with the phenomenon of science fiction and UFOs.

That all being said, you still have to wonder…are they out there?

 

84000: A translation project for the entire Buddhist canon

 

84000 translation project

The largest collection of Buddhist scriptures exists in the Tibetan version of the canon, called the Kangyur and the Tengyur. The Kangyur contains not only texts recognized as texts that correspond with the Theravada tradition originally written in Pali, but also texts from Chinese translations, although most of the scriptures contained in the canon that are considered words of the Buddha are Mahayana texts made from translations of the Indian originals in Sanskrit. The reason why the Tibetan canon is the largest is that it also contains all of the commentaries from the Indian masters, which form the Tengyur section of the canon. The Tengyur itself is three times the size of the Kangyur, or the scriptures themselves. The Kangyur comprises around 1,000 texts while the Tengyur contains around 3,000. The Kangyur and Tengyur are also expanded by containing texts from the third major school of Buddhism, Tantrayana or Vajrayana, of which Tibetan Buddhism is the major form of practice. Therefore, of all the texts that exist in Buddhism, only texts from schools like Shingon and Zen are missing from the Kangyur and Tengyur.

Now, the Tengyur and Kangyur are in the process of being translated into English, a monumental task of translating all “84000” pages (actually closer to 200,000 when one includes the Tengyur) of the Buddha’s teachings from the classical Tibetan. This project was initiated by Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, a very insightful, ambitious, and dedicated teacher. I believe this project will be immensely beneficial to anyone interested in learning from the Buddhist tradition and all Buddhists. The translation is still a work in progress: only around 90 texts have been translated so far. However, this will only grow with time and donations.

Erik Satie’s Nocturnes

 

It is said that Satie reached the heights of his compositional abilities late in life, and I have to wholeheartedly agree. While most people are only aware of the Gymnopedies and a few other compositions by Satie, the Nocturnes are by far my different. At only 13 minutes combined length, they represent a huge leap forward in tonal composition style, breaking away from Satie’s earlier light and meditational atmosphere and embrace the melancholic and heartbreakingly sad. It’s incredible to me how sad these pieces are, like recalling a memory of a bygone era. One is immediately transported into the quiet night streets of early 20th century France, snow falling on a hill…the mental image it conjures up may differ depending on the person, but one thing is for sure, the chord structure and harmony is definitely innovative. The blog post I have linked to below says this on the subject:

“It was not without good reason that the label ‘outsider’ stuck to Satie. As of his earliest compositions he was in search of alternatives to the tonal harmony that was still the unquestioned convention when he began his training at the Paris Conservatoire (1879–87). This search runs like a red thread through all of his works, and was certainly absolutely independent of the stylistic orientation of individual works, reaching indeed, as we know, from echoes of the medieval and exotic to the then popular cabaret music.”

This last comment is particularly intriguing to me. Without going too in-depth into the harmonic style and complexity of the Nocturnes (which I am definitely not able to do with justice), I find the connection between medieval harmony and Erik Satie to be accurate just from my musically trained ear. The style in the Nocturnes, for example, has a certain gravity about it that invokes a kind of sacred atmosphere. To be more musically specific, in almost all of Satie’s pieces, the left and right hand are given almost complete independence: either the left hand is playing chords and the melody floats on top, or often there are two independent melody lines played by the left and right hands. This latter technique occurs in the Nocturnes and evokes a medieval-style chorus with interweaving melodies. I am reminded of a particular piece (not available on Youtube) that also happens to be written by a Frenchman, called Veni Creator Spiritus by Perotin- one of the earliest known composers we have a name for! Perhaps the great Satie was influenced by the chanting that could still be heard in Notre Dame Cathedral where Satie was choir master. Who knows?

 

 

http://www.henle.de/blog/en/2014/09/29/composing-made-easy-on-erik-satie%E2%80%99s-%E2%80%98nocturnes%E2%80%99/

The “mystery” of the infinite

As I have developed in other blog posts, the infinite is essentially boring so humanity invents ways to make it not boring. The debate of the universe being infinite vs. finite is interesting, but its probably infinite according to current cosmology. The nature in which its infinite is somewhat interesting, but to me, whether the universe is one universe in a nest of bubble universes or a infinite flat plane of universe is somewhat inconsequential. One has to be empirically correct, but philosophically it is essentially the same, but only at first glance.

The “bubble universe” or multiverse theory has one strength, as far as I can gleam- it introduces the cosmogony into the cosmology. In other words, it posits a way in which universes can be created and destroyed. Realizing that the known universe has a beginning, we can only speculate that it has an ending and is impermanent. The “bubble universe” theory has the advantage of postulating a dynamic system. The only downside I can think of is that it is almost too aesthetically pleasing and may amount to some form of anthropomorphism- in other words, its a pretty vision of what we would want Reality to look like. Can we see the beauty in an infinite expanse of nothingness or vacuum lying outside the observable universe? Its possible, but I personally would rather Reality to go on without me, for things to keep emerging and dying in an endless cycle.

The Bubble universe becomes even more probable if one consider that the Big Bang becomes not an “unexplainable event”, as Stephen Hawking was liable to believe at one point, but a causal event. Would I go so far as to “endorse” the Bubble universe/multiverse theory? I would say that it is the most attractive one currently available because it gives the universe a reason for being which is simply a matter of physics.

Let us imagine, however, a day millions of years in the future of humanity. We have discovered and proven the theory of the Bubble multiverse by seeing past the observable universe. Then we realize: what is one level above that multiverse? Is this series of bubbles in another bubble? 

You see the problem. An infinite nested series of bubbles. We are back at the same problem of infinity. The multiverse theory doesn’t solve the problem of the bubbles unless somehow that series of bubbles were finite or maybe countably infinite. What is more probable however is that this “bubbles within bubbles”, what classic Buddhist philosophy calls interpenetration and what can somewhat be mathematically described as having fractal geometry, is the nature of Reality. Reality simply goes on forever, but in a way in which patterns repeat over and over.

In my mind, we have yet to truly grasp the magnitude of infinity. By its very nature, what we are seeing as the entire observable universe is not only a tiny fraction of reality, it is an infinitesimal portion of it. No matter how big of a chunk you grab, whether it be half the universe, 6 universes, 100 billion universes, 100 billion multiverses…you get the picture.

That is why the ultimate explanation or causal picture of Reality as it is is by no means explained by the Big Bang. Am I positing a deity? No, there is no need to evoke omniscient beings and consciousnesses. Reality is as such, and its suchness is will always be tautological. It exists because it existed in the past…this created this, that created that. Try to “zoom out” and ask “well what created the whole thing?” and an answer will ultimately never be achieved. Or, by contrast, you could simply say “nothing created the whole thing, there never was nothing”. This latter answer leaves humans generally feeling like they are missing something, it feels emptywhich is why I believe its the right answer. Saying, “it just is” goes against the very metaphor of discovery which drives Western civilization and scientific knowledge. It implies that the only reason for new discoveries is utilitarian, and there is no grander teleological narrative, which is probably the case!

What is there left to discover? Everything and nothing, depending on your point of view. The multiverse leaves open some intriguing philosophical or existential possibilities. But by and large, we must recognize and confront the fact that the universe is the way it is, and our knowledge of it will not significantly change it in any way. In other words, we will be born, we will die, and the universe will continue to go. Thinking at these grand levels of cosmological scale is fun, but after awhile, you are forced epistemologically back down to earth.

 

The frightening, unacceptable nature of the infinite

https://www.universetoday.com/83167/universe-could-be-250-times-bigger-than-what-is-observable/

The article linked to above covers the most plausible science of what lies beyond the observable universe. The theory is that if the theory of the inflationary universe is correct (and all evidence points to the fact that it is correct) than the universe is at least 250 times larger than what is currently observable. To begin with, the size of the observable universe is around 90 billion light years wide. That means it would take light, which moves almost exactly 300,000 km/s (kilometers, not meters) 90 billion years to traverse the diameter of the universe. To quote the article:

“Since special relativity states that nothing can move faster than a photon, many people misinterpret this to mean that the observable Universe must be 13.75 billion light years across. In fact, it is much larger. Not only has space been expanding since the big bang, but the rate of expansion has been steadily increasing due to the influence of dark energy. Since special relativity doesn’t factor in the expansion of space itself, cosmologists estimate that the oldest photons have travelled a distance of 45 billion light years since the big bang. That means that our observable Universe is on the order of 90 billion light years wide.”

Therefore, the universe is expands even faster than the speed of light, and because of that certain parts of the universe are forever beyond our light cone. Because of this, they are even beyond the realm of causal interaction- everything beyond the 90 billion light year diameter of the universe cannot interact with the observable universe except perhaps through gravity.

Let’s expand further: if the theory of the inflationary universe correct, then the universe is at least 250x larger than what is currently observable (somewhere on the order of 100 sextillion light years across). But why, then, can the universe not be infinitely large?

It seems we are faced with a contradiction. It seems impossible to empirically prove that the universe goes on forever because of physical constraints and the sheer logical fact that it would not be possible to observe an infinite distance in the first place because conceivably, one could always say “perhaps the end is still beyond that”. If it can be a priori proven from mathematical principles seems dubious at best- the debate rages on between those who say the universe is flat or curved. However, most current data favors a flat and therefore spatially infinite universe.

This idea of measuring the spatial curvature of the universe however does not take into account the fact that at some point beyond the observable horizon of the universe the curvature suddenly increases or is so close to 0 but not being 0 that it is impossible to tell. Thus the problem of infinitesimals meets the infinite.

However, the article expresses a kind of reticence to pronounce that the universe is probably infinite. It is simply “too hard to accept”- they would rather go with the title “universe could be 250 times bigger than what we can see.” For some reason, it is more shocking to say that the universe is 250 times rather than infinitely larger than expected. Somehow, infinity gets reduced to 0. How is this possible? Because infinity, as an endless repetition, is essentially boring. I’ve written about this before, but strictly speaking, humans cannot truly comprehend the infinite, and so they collapse into concepts that are seemingly opposite to it, such as nothingness. Something that is infinitely larger than something is now beyond human comparison, and therefore cannot be gawked at. What is funny is that this is even done by cosmologists.

Take this Quora answer by a mathematics professor, repeating the standard line that the number of electrons in the universe is 10^80 and therefore it is countable and finite:

https://www.quora.com/Is-the-universe-countable

If all the evidence points to an infinite universe, even though it is essentially not possible to prove otherwise, it will never be proclaimed as a fact. Why? There is still more to explore! Infinity violates the boundaries of science- it introduces the metaphysical into the mathematical. If the universe is infinite, what type of infinity is it? Countably infinite? Uncountably infinite?

These are questions that will probably never be answered, but my money is on uncountably infinite. Why? Because the “boundary” of what consider the universe isn’t actually a boundary at all. I’ve pointed out the narrow-mindedness of physicists before when it comes to theories of the universe and the most abstruse theories out there (string theory, holographic theory). There are only boundaries it seems when it comes to the human imagination (of some humans). Even I don’t believe these are insurmountable barriers to human knowledge. I do not believe, as Leonard Susskind claims, it is simply impossible to understand things like quantum physics directly or intuitively. The human brain is a finite organ in space and time, but it has the astounding ability to conceptually grasp things even beyond what is considered “normal life”.

The fundamental Buddhist insight- that what we see is not how reality truly is- is absolutely fundamentally correct. Everything we know about reality points to this, because there are simply things we cannot see- atoms, worlds far beyond our own. The structure of things, their nature, is not possible to grasp with the five senses alone- Plato and the great thinkers of the past knew that very well just from their experience- they knew there was something more to what we see. However, the Platonic vision of reality is also fundamentally limited. Concepts like nirvana or even “the universe” are also only ultimately constructs. Reality as it is is beyond at least average conceptual understanding. Where the real conceptual leap must occur is into the realm of what Buddhist philosophy calls “non-conceptual thought”, which to the rationalist mind is simply an error. Such a thing is not possible. However, if we were to gain some sort of insight into the nature of things like “uncountably infinite” we would in fact have to go beyond our normal concepts for things which operate in terms of metaphors which only apply to the here and now.

To conclude, when thinking of the idea of the uncountable, the mind encounters accepting a limit. It tries to convert the idea of uncountable to something more mundane, like “countable if given an infinite amount of time”. But this is not a correct definition of uncountable. Therefore, if we were to truly accept something of the order of “the universe is uncountably infinite” we would have to accept things like “a theory of everything is not possible”. And yet, science continues to grasp for this theory. And the question is obviously- why? Because the search for truth seems to be something inherent to humanity. Perhaps this particular strain of searching is historically contingent, but modern physics and science now desperately wants this TOE.

My theory is that the TOE stands ultimately for the purpose of science itself, its floating signifier, a signifier which is beyond the bounds of all the other signifiers. The TOE, if thought to be obtained, would not be in fact the TOE. Instead, there would be an illusory nesting egg effect- “TOEs” inside of TOEs. Ultimately, paradoxes will always plague science, as long as it continues to exist.

 

Imee Ooi: Dharma artist

Imee Ooi is an artist who makes songs of Buddhist mantras, sutras, and dharanis. Her music has an amazingly peaceful and pure quality. Her version of the Heart Sutra in Sanskrit and Mandarin have always meant a lot to me. Sometimes it is only through things like music that we can truly understand the meaning of things like emptiness or impermanence. That is really my only access to the transcendent, through these kind of crutches. I reach back to my experiences listening to the most beautiful music and how it made me feel to understand the nature of existence, its mystery and loveliness. It is through music and art that we can access these hidden depths of consciousness, much better than mind altering drugs for instance. Sometimes you will get that understanding by yourself, sitting on a mountain, sitting by the ocean. We live in a blessed era where we can access these feelings of bliss sometimes by clicking a button. But is this too much of a good thing? I believe if used in moderation, this kind of music can be used to pacify and subdue the minds of suffering beings.

Dharma Art, art deliberately made to benefit and subdue the suffering minds of beings, is the highest art form. The Medicine Buddha in particular is for those in deep suffering. May this song be for all those who need it the most, the poor, the hungry, the sick. May your suffering be released, and may you abide forever in bliss

Reform or Revolution: Do we need a Third Party?

According to Marxist-Leninists, only direct action and hostile revolution from below can accomplish the goals of socialism (defined according to orthodox ML terms). I disregard this tactical strategy as feasible in America. Anyone who wants real change should realize that electoral politics and seizing power this way is the main way to achieve change outside of real grassroots mobilization like strike action.

But the real “reformist” debate is whether America needs a third party or not. And there is a good case to be made that America, despite the upsurge of support for progressive takeover of the Democratic Party, needs long-term to completely reform the two party system. This is because it is simply too difficult to reform the Democratic Party, with its superdelegates and ties to corporate PACs, to be reformed in a meaningful way. I believe it can be done- the Progressive Caucus is already the largest caucus in the Democratic Party. But real meaningful change in policy can only occur by completely redefining the policies of the entire party, or by taking that momentum and forming a Third Party.

There will come a time in American electoral politics where the decision to support a progressive/socialist electoral party will come. It may be 10 years, it may be 20 years, but it will come. For now, I believe the right strategy is hostile takeover of the Democratic Party. Long-term, I believe it is third party formation, regardless of potential splits of the liberal vote. Sea changes are occurring in people’s viewpoints and demographics that I believe will eventually result in complete electoral reform and the transformation of America’s electoral politics into a true parliamentary democracy with well over 3 major parties. The sooner this starts to happen the better.

Too much attention I believe is given to the tactics debate on the Left. At the end of the day, whether you as a progressive voted for the “lesser of two evils” against Trump or voted third party in 2016, or even didn’t vote out of disgust, doesn’t mean much to me, but its important that the discourse started in the first place. Far from personalizing the politics of it, one should recognize that members of the Left of all stripes were divided on this difficult question. Now, our long-term horizon in the rapidly changing face of American politics post-Bernie Sanders and post-Trump should accommodate new developments, particularly when it comes to strategic support of democratic socialist candidates.

If you count yourself as a radical Leftist, let me address you as someone who shares your commitments theoretically and politically. One should realize the historical window of opportunity that is taking place politically and tactically support democratic socialist candidates even if you believe their politics are not radical enough. This is because I believe too many people in my generation have quickly become enamored with socialism through disillusion with our system and in haste have disregarded the real possibilities for bettering people’s lives through electoral politics. A true “revolution” is under way that can only be described as unprecedented in the US: our backwards and reactionary politics are finally being challenged in a genuine movement for change. From foreign policy to universal healthcare and education, these polices are desperately needed now, not in a hypothetical future under a revolutionary government.

However, to members of the DSA and progressive movement, I believe the radical Left needs to be given greater a voice in the movement when it comes to policy. It is true that historically the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. There is a reason to be skeptical of electoral politics when there is no public financing of elections. The policy platform of the DSA and other democratic socialist groups needs to be pushed even further left to accommodate policies such as complete redress of imperialism and the scaling back of America’s military by a huge margin. Part of the reason why no social programs like Medicare for All are able to be pursued right now is that the government’s finances are apportioned to extremely wasteful military spending.

https://www.dsausa.org/where_we_stand#global

The DSA, while it generally has a very progressive agenda, still uses vague language like “major cuts in military spending” along with rhetoric around imperialism, I have yet to find a policy document that gives a number. The fear is that using a number like this will either pidgeonhole the party into a definite number or expose them to attacks by members of the opposite side. Well, I for one, and many Americans, want a number. What about 50%? 60%? Any number you can possibly think of that is “too high” may surprise you given the exorbitant historical amount of waste in the DoD.

The domestic priorities of an organization like the DSA I believe are mostly right on the mark and have wide popular support. Things like Medicare for All are outlined in almost painstaking detail in terms of facts and figures. However, when it comes to how much we will shrink the military budget, this seems to be the “unconscious” of the democratic socialist movement. Addressing something that directly, as something that can actually be changed instead of theoretical terms like “imperialism” seem to be almost impossible. Using words like “climate change” and “transitioning to a green energy economy” seem to be equally likely nowadays, but using words like “getting rid of oil subsidies” seem to be too “wonky”. Follow the money, always follow the money.

I believe a broad combination of strategies will eventually transition the US into a modern welfare state that is on par with the rest of the developed world. We should realize the immense struggle that is ahead of us relative to much of Europe. We should also realize that there are challenges that have only just begun: the climate crisis being one of them. To those of you that currently reflexively vote Democrat, I challenge you to keep an open mind in the years ahead. “The times they are a changin’ “