My Inheritance

A human being may bequeath to progeny their money, their property, titles, debts and rights. But there is more to it than that, isn’t there? We humans also pass on our genes, our attitudes, our beliefs and our cultural traditions. Unlike property, this is not a single and direct transfer that takes place at death. It is a continuous two-way interaction that takes place throughout our lifetimes, and in some cases, continues after we are dead – but it is nevertheless a part of the inheritance passed on. Some people see this non-financial transfer as a definitive task or a familial or social obligation, and many people seek control of the entire process as as if it were their absolute right, akin to the Western tradition of private property. The desire to control the destiny of private property and non-property estate assets past the finishing-post of death is a very strong human trait. Yet there are greater issues that flow from this seemingly most personal of acts, issues that impact on the evolution and efficiency of society as a whole, and that is the subject of this post. Let’s start this thought-walk by dismissing out of hand any pretence at considering the precise rights and obligations imposed by laws or regulations. Quite simply, the issues to weigh are greater than the haphazard implementation of a handful of mildly disinterested law-makers, and the haphazard nature of such implementation results in demarcation disputes over just which relevant law or body of laws applies in each situation. So we will dismiss the exactitudes of this or that local, state or national rule-book, and consider instead just what is happening when the process of inheritance and hereditary transmission take place.

Hereditary right vs inheritance

A hereditary right is one granted through the virtue of birth. For those fortunate enough to be born in the ‘right’ family, and at the ‘right’ end of a family tree branch, there will be benefits, obligations, position and prestige provided by society simply because of that accident of birth. There have been exclusions and exceptions over the years, with some societies limiting inheritance to the eldest son or positing exceptions of one kind or another, such as the inability of lepers to inherit.

Inheritance and property

Inheritance creates issues in ways that bewilder and confound.

(see this link for an example of inability to inherit owing to leprosy). An inheritance, on the other hand, may be benefits, obligations, wealth, debt, prestige or denigration. You may inherit land, buildings, income, precious art/ metals/ objects or basic cash. You may in some circumstances even inherit a debt. Now this is an interesting one, and an area where laws set a rather illogical precedent. It is a basic principle of Western laws that children are not responsible for the debts of a dead person – in other words, your estate balances up assets against liabilities, and pays out the net amount to beneficiaries. If there is nothing left then there is no inheritance. If the sum of assets and liabilities is a negative – that is, the debts are greater than the assets – then beneficiaries are not asked to make up the difference. They may not get the family farm or the family home that they through they were entitled to but neither are they going to be asked to put their hand in their pocket, and stump up cash to balance the books of their parent’s estate. It’s like a one-way valve – you can make money but you cannot lose. We’ll come back to that little anomaly…

Back to the non-financial inheritance. Prestige may come in the form of a very much revered and ancient family name – with or without any associated property wealth. Bill Bryson covers this in his book At Home, in which he points out that wealthy US folk married impoverished British aristocracy at a rate of knots in the 19th century. The British aristocracy obtained capital in the form of cash,  while the newly-wealthy of the United States obtained capital in the form of a historical lineage. And money was sufficient to grant more than just a financial inheritance. Bill Bryson goes on to talk about the Vanderbilt family, who “… at one time he personally controlled some 10 per cent of all the money  in circulation in the United States.” Bryson then highlights the benefits of inheritance, in that “The Vanderbilts grew so powerful and spoiled that they could get away, literally, with murder. Reggie Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius and Alice Vanderbilt, was a notoriously reckless driver (as well as insolent, idle, stupid and without redeeming feature) who ran through or over pedestrians on five separate occasions in New York. Two of those he flung aside were killed; a third was crippled for life. He was never charged with any offense.”

In a similar yet negatively correlated way, denigration can be an inheritance in circumstances such as being born into a family with a much hated history, to the wrong caste or class in a rigidly class-structured society. Being born an ‘untouchable’ could hardly be considered a hereditary right but it quite definitely is an inheritance. Similarly, it is possible to be born into a family of immense wealth and prestige – but with an odorous past. Perhaps one of the ‘great families’ who have recently undergone this or that demotion or event of shame. In this case, there are hereditary rights but the inheritance is not completely positive. So, why does it matter to differentiate between an hereditary right and an inheritance? We’ll return to this one but first we need to revisit the issue of ‘ownership’, most broadly understood in the Western sense,as “private property”.

What do you actually own?

Private property is the over-riding lynch pin of Western economic thought. Private ownership rules and laws have changed and evolved over the millenia, with empires, royalty, aristocracy and various other “ocracies” finding their claim to all that is built, made, born and present slowly erode, as others became able to earn and retain their own assets and wealth. This evolution of ownership eventually reached the stage where all individuals are able to own something in their own name, safe from state, institutional or ‘right-of-might’ confiscation, robbery, damage, coercion, cheating and fraud. This right to individual ownership of property is seen as a fundamental step towards the modern world. The benefits of private ownership are not universally acknowledged. Proudhon’s “Property is theft” slogan has been a rallying call for the anarchist movement throughout the years – but any real-world examples of this philosophy in action have been unmitigated disasters, and so ownership of property continues to be the fulcrum on which Western nations operate. Ownership and ‘private property’ are seen by some as the only practical way of ensuring the efficient distributions of scarce resources. Private property ensures personal obligation, concern, care, and responsibility. It obviates the “tragedy of the commons”, and ensures that assets and property are efficiently managed. The idea behind this is covered in this article from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. The following excerpt is longer than usual but it does quite beautifully paint a picture of the point under discussion :

The rational explanation for such ruin was given more than 170 years ago. In 1832 William Forster Lloyd, a political economist at Oxford University, looking at the recurring devastation of common (i.e., not privately owned) pastures in England, asked: “Why are the cattle on a common so puny and stunted? Why is the common itself so bare-worn, and cropped so differently from the adjoining inclosures?” Lloyd’s answer assumed that each human exploiter of the common was guided by self-interest. At the point when the carrying capacity of the commons was fully reached, a herdsman might ask himself, “Should I add another animal to my herd?” Because the herdsman owned his animals, the gain of so doing would come solely to him. But the loss incurred by overloading the pasture would be “commonized” among all the herdsmen. Because the privatized gain would exceed his share of the commonized loss, a self-seeking herdsman would add another animal to his herd. And another. And reasoning in the same way, so would all the other herdsmen. Ultimately, the common property would be ruined.

The complete article is a worthwhile read. Just keep in mind that the site is on economics and liberty – so there is a clearly stated focus for individualism and hints of the Austrian school of economics. Climate change is a great example of the tragedy of the commons at work. Each country, company and individual can continue to degrade the atmosphere (and to all intents and purposes, the broader environment), as the benefits from doing so (in terms of standard of living and pure economic self-interest) are greater for them than the shared cost of the outcomes. The financial market equivalent is the ability of global level banks to take outlandish levels of risk and keep the reward, while stepping up to governments to share in the costs of any negative outcomes from those risks. “Privatising profits and socialising losses” is the phrase used post the 2007/08 Global Financial Crisis. Private property is a central plank in modern economies. Even developing countries such as China, with their gradual steps towards capitalism, are finding that private property is a tricky concept to play around with. This article from the venerable New York Times reports on villagers in Wukan who have barricaded the streets and marched to enforce their individual property rights.

NYTimes article on Wukan villagers calling for fair treatment for private property

Even autocratic nations tread dangerous ground when they fail to acknowledge the principles of private property

And so we return to the point under discussion – private property and inheritance. There are many ways in which to view the seemingly simple process by which the assets and liabilities of an individual are passed to beneficiaries. When viewed in a narrow sense, it involves little more than the transfer of cash and the assigning of private property ownership rights under respective laws. When viewed in a wider sense, we begin to touch on less definitive processes and ideas and thoughts.

Is inheritance A SOcial “Good”?

Why is it that the possessions and chattel that you or i accumulate during our lifetime, can pass on to others? This chain of possession is taken for granted by Western nations but is it a useless legacy of times and needs past? A bit like the appendix, a rather pointless left-over that from time to time can cause a lot of trouble but the thing itself is of no redeeming benefit? What is the alternative or alternatives? Maybe a free-for-all in which locals and family fight it out for whatever remains, as soon as your passing breath is made? There is a very disturbing scene in the classic movie “Zorba the Greek”, in which a elderly woman’s – Madame Hortense’s – house is ransacked as soon as she dies.

Inheritance - Dame Hortense style

Who owns what you own once you die?

It is reminiscent of the stories passed on to us about scenes surrounding the deaths of kings of the past – posts abandoned and royal bodies lost through the mad scramble to be a part of the new royal prerogative. Is this an appropriate way of dealing with death and the passing on of an inheritance?   Logic and polite society would suggest that this is a recipe for conflict, disagreement, disappointment and instability. So we have rules that allow a person to decide before they die, how they would like their possessions dealt with when they die.

Is society better off for enforcing the distribution of material wealth wishes of a person who is no longer alive? Touchy subject but an interesting one to ponder.Touchy, because most people want to do “the best” for their children or grandchildren, favourite pet or institution, and therefore aim to accumulate and pass on, as much financial asset as they possibly can. Interesting, because the person/people/pet/institution who inherits these funds has done nothing of worth to earn the capital. They have simply been born into or been liked by, the “right” family. And this, dear friends, is just another form of aristocracy.

If one generation does nothing to earn their beneficial entitlement then what benefit is there to society in this person receiving the endowment? One argument is that the private property transcends generational divides and death, so inherited wealth is just another logical outcome rewarding those who are successful in a capitalist society. The next generation has seen the previous work hard to generate money, so they are likely to be well suited to managing the excess capital. Better pass the wealth on to an indolent progeny than to distribute to hordes of the lazy and unimaginative.

Inheritance and private property

Inheritance seems so straight-forward. However, there are quirks in the system. How about theft? What if the current generation accumulates significant wealth but does so in an unethical, immoral or simply criminal manner. If that generational member dies, how legitimate is the claim to assets of whoever was nominated in the unethical, immoral or simply criminal testator?

So many things to ponder on this issue. We’ll come back to it in a little while.

 

 

 

You can't handle the truth - the demagogues in our midst

Still Thinking about… the demagogue

Beware the demagogue

Oh yes my friend, you should beware the demagogue in our midst.

Is that statement a little too self-evident? Why the emphasis on what amounts to a stock-standard character in any developed world society? A demagogue should be overtly and starkly obvious to even the most cursory investigation so why am i being so tedious? For this post, we are not even going to define a demagogue. This is a positioning statement only. There is much left to say about the demagogue in modern society. Why?

Because common sense is anything but common, and our shiny developed societies place more value on the cult of personality than on speaking plain truths. Even the concept of ‘plain truths’ gets distorted, when political parties thrust Mr or Mrs, Miss or Ms Average onto the public stage to make overly simple statements that sound correct but actually hide a myriad mess of false premises and errant logic. Every community will have its example but United States politics is resplendent with such folk. People like Joe the Plumber. ‘Same logic but different front-man/woman’ is evident when we have leaders and authoritative figures devastating considered debate with a primitive sound-bite or home ‘down-to-earth and pithy logic’ that fails every test of logic. You’re familiar with the style – it’s usually wrapped around some fictitious call for authenticity and the return of a golden, more honest and honour-worthy past.

Who is the demagogue?

So the demagogue in our midst may not be all that obvious after all. They are unlikely to appear in their true form – they may appear calm, studious, considered… stoic even. They will have a specific lure. Perhaps they have a casual strength that lends credence to their every utterance or a massive authority by virtue of family background, corporate success or academic achievement? This can be a problem, as in acknowledging these positive forces we fall for one text-book fallacy after another. Authority of one form or another can and often does cloak fallacy, something along the lines of those classic words uttered by Samwise Gamgee in the Lord of the Rings, when talking about someone who eventually turns out to be a hero in the story… “i don’t know Mr Frodo sir, i’d think a servant of the Dark Lord would look fairer and feel fouler as they say…”. This does not automatically endow the ugly with a pristine character but it is an interesting take on the request to not read a book by its cover.

 

servant of the Dark Lord would look fairer and feel fouler - the demagogues are in our midst

How can you tell the demagogue in your midst? (image source not-alone.livejournal.com)

So why remind people of the blindingly obvious, and talk about something that is possibly already being discussed at coffee-tables? Why shouldn’t we just rely on our individual accumulated knowledge, experience and observation and trust that these will hold us in good stead, and guide us to good decision making? Is there a litmus test that we can use to help us identify the demagogue in our midst, and how do we delineate the demagogue from the righteous campaigner or the genuine societal reformist agitator? Are these character portrayals simply a reflection of perspective and outlook, muddled to insignificance in a world of relative values? To some extent they are, which is why basic values should always be questioned, poked and pondered under a slightly different light. It is only through continuous questioning that the true demagogue in our midst is unveiled.

Let’s start the thought process by looking a little closer at the social imperatives that create demagogues in our midst.

When leaders lie

Oh yes, my friend – not all leaders are setting out to gain your favour by telling the truth. At least, not the truth as you and i would assess it. And i’m not even sure about you now, am i? Elections in the modern world evoke universal cynicism to the point that truth-telling becomes far less important than spotting lies.

As usual, the United States provides ample illustration of the diversity of opinion that parades as fact. Checking the facts behind political throwaway lines has becomes something of an art, with a huge array of loyal followers. Does lying change mass opinion? Groups such as fact checkers (www.factcheck.org) help the average person to find those little or large fibs, filibusters and outright lies. Interestingly, the 2012 presidential election was most impacted by a truth told by one presidential candidate, who publicly belittled half the population as being less than worthy of consideration. For all the lies, it was a personal truth that made the greatest difference. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

What is it that allows us (makes us) decide to like/agree with/vote for/subscribe to someone who we have never met in person, spoken to or ever would encounter in the societal circles that we inhabit? Moving in closer, which version of chicken-coop-hierarchy are we following when a group of people voluntarily ‘elect’ a leader (whether intentional and overt or simply a granting of power and superior status)?

Let’s draw a long bow and declare that human society is based above all on the concept of leadership. Whether the national decision making processes are based on autocracy, democracy, meritocracy, aristocracy  monarchy, communism, anarchy or any model thereof, there is a requirement that the bulk of the society trust that their leaders will provide circumstances for sustaining life and hopefully for improving it. That the leaders will also provide clarity of action, and allow their citizens to navigate those intents and get on with the act of living life.

You could argue that leaders do not need to provide clarity or that these conditions do not always exist. You could point to slavery and examples where the larger population is not given any say or consideration (the Spartan Helots come to mind). However, it would be difficult to argue against the statement that in all such instances, the tensions and disparities that inevitably flow have eventually led to a realignment of the decision making process and the redistribution of power. (Counter argument – that could be a time-frame measured in centuries! Counter-counter argument – time required doesn’t make the statement invalid).

For the moment, if you would please just give the benefit of the doubt to the idea that human society is based above all on the concept of leadership, and consider what this means for the effective operation of any society – but most importantly, a modern society.

You could even argue that most people in a developed society almost expect their leaders to impart truth in small measures. This may be a result of disaffection, as pork is directed away from your specific interest group or it could be a track record of genuinely bad leaders or it could be the final result of a weary electorate after cascading years of shortfalls in honesty.

If we take the argument to its extreme then people should expect their leaders to be incapable of imparting the truth at all times. Here’s an essay style article which suggests just such a thing http://thinkinghard.com/politics/WhyPoliticiansHaveToLie.html. Of course, the moment one human being expects another human being to lie, those two human beings have lost one of the fundamental components of efficiency in communication. Each will need to second-guess the other for intention or motive, and assess the likelihood that there is a lie in any component of communication. In effect, these two humans have lost the ability to communicate effectively as well as efficiently. Modern society pretty much would have trouble coping with a leader who continuously portrayed the absolute truth.

Trust and truth

Oh yes, my friend these two virtues are only occasionally linked in the manner good faith would suggest. Trust is often granted in the absence of truth, while truth does not always engender trust. In fact, truth can destroy trust – but that is another ponder altogether.

You can't handle the truth - the demagogues in our midst

You can’t handle the truth! – the demagogues are in our midst

If truth is too hard to hear, what is it that is being spoken? Half-truths? Paternal fibs to make you happy in your societal bondage? Glib nothings that pander to the mainstream thinking that is already directed by hegemonic forces that are, by definition, invisible.

Intercession – You’re not thinking – you’re just mumbling..!

Ok. That is probably a valid criticism. Let’s stop for a moment, and empty our minds of accumulated ponders. Why is it that discussion on demagogues is so easily subverted by a myriad of seemingly disconnected issues?

Beware the demagogue because they will always be acting against your interests

Because that is how demagogues work. They start with half-truths or even full truths, and add, build and develop that core of vague truths with outstanding displays of long-bowman-ship and convoluted logic. It still remains something of a mystery that such foolishness can be accepted as credible by an increasingly and historically very educated public and yet it is.

Perhaps it’s the law of small numbers tricking individual perspectives, as we highly connected, educated, informed and aware modern citizens increasingly narrow our inputs through selective news and data sources. Ever wondered what happens when the internet and modern communications allow a greater diversity of input and opinion and yet so many people simply use these tools to seek out similar minded folk, no matter where they may be? The internet is definitely the Great Enabler, yet it also allows people with specific or even extreme views to track down pockets of like minded fools from across the globe.

Demagogues have been a part of the landscape of human society since its inception. That is a necessary function of the urge for power, control and “leadership”. We should by now have a pretty good handle on this innate cancer of an enlightened society and yet we do not. That is cause for concern. It is also cause for this post, and for this reason we should should all be, Still Thinking.

Edmund Burke evil triumphs if good men do nothing

Still Thinking about half-truth emails

Australia is considered a tolerant multi-cultural nation. There will always be those who are less tolerant, and who are not happy with the range of outcomes necessitated by a multi-cultural society. The Internet gives these people an avenue to spread their view of the universe, and quite often the message is more than a little  confused. Here’s an email received recently. The exercise of the day is to read it, and analyse your immediate thoughts and impressions. Now consider how a range of different people you know would be likely to receive, and react to such an email…

Following this email is a copy of the note that was sent via “reply to all”. What is your approach to dealing with examples of half-truths or misstatements?

The email has the subject line “Very powerful…”

*************************************************************************************

NOW!!!!! WHAT RIGHT’S DO WE HAVE?

THINK ABOUT IT????????

A very powerful cartoon, please keep it going and remember they are putting their lives on the line for us all. We all should have the same rights, what ever your religion.

cartoon depicting a failure to take a pledge in front of disabled soldier
This should be posted in every school in the Australia and all Commonwealth countries.

Only31 words — Think about it!

Isn’t life strange? I never met one Veteran who enlisted to fight for Socialism!

If Muslims can pray in Martins Place, why are Christians banned from praying in public and from erecting religious displays on their holy days?

What happened to our National Day of Prayer?
Muslims are allowed to block off major streets, in all Australian States and pray in the middle of the street! and it’s a monthly ritual!

Tell me, again, whose country is this?
Ours or the Muslims?

I was asked to send this on if I agree, or delete if I don’t.

It is said that 86% of Australians believe in God.

Therefore, I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a problem in having ‘God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s prayer said in our schools or public meetings.

I believe it’s time we stand up for what we believe!

If you agree, pass this on; if not, delete it.

*************************************************************************************

and here is the response sent to all who were on the distribution list for this email…

ok. i’ll admit to being a bit of an anarchist when it comes to these sort of emails… i’ve added a few comments. feel free to delete, the same way the original email suggests…
NOW!!!!! WHAT RIGHT’S DO WE HAVE?

THINK ABOUT IT????????

i have thought about it a lot. i’ve taken myself to university to study it, and most of the reading that i do day-to-day is oriented towards just that kind of thinking.

A very powerful cartoon, please keep it going and remember they are putting their lives on the line for us all.

Agree that soldiers fight in wars that governments start, and that every injury and fatality – both military and civilian – is a horrible outcome. The cartoon however, lacks impact because it tries to tie together unconnected issues. For example, for it to be funny or powerful, you have to assume the child understands the full impact of his actions, or that the child who fails to act out the pledge cannot have sympathy for a disabled soldier – neither of these is a valid expectation. Let’s see how the accompanying wording goes for robust thinking.

We all should have the same rights, what ever your religion.

Totally agree.

This should be posted in every school in the Australia and all Commonwealth countries.

Totally disagree. The cartoon puts forward one view out of many possible interpretations of the underlying themes. If the cartoon is available at schools, it should be used as an example of how opinion is polarised by fallacy and inappropriate calls of authority through association.

Only31 words — Think about it!
Isn’t life strange? I never met one Veteran who enlisted to fight for Socialism!

The cartoon makes no statement about Socialism.

If Muslims can pray in Martins Place, why are Christians banned from praying in public and from erecting religious displays on their holy days?

The cartoon makes no statement about Muslims.

What happened to our National Day of Prayer?

What National Day of Prayer? This is Australia. We don’t have a National Day of Prayer.

Muslims are allowed to block off major streets, in all Australian States and pray in the middle of the street! and it’s a monthly ritual!

If they apply for appropriate permits, and the same permits are available to all under the same conditions then there should be no issue with this. The cartoon does not make a statement about Muslims being able to pray on the streets.

Tell me, again, whose country is this?
Ours or the Muslims?

The country “belongs” to the people who inhabit it, whether Muslim, Christian, Atheist, Agnostic or Jedi Knights.

I was asked to send this on if I agree, or delete if I don’t.

Once upon a time, i just deleted these emails. Then i realised that this is exactly the same sort of lethargy and apathy that allows such half-truths to keep in circulation. Now i annoy people by hitting “reply to all”, and pointing out the shortfalls in validity and logic, and the mistaken calls to authority based on just about every fallacy available.

It is said that 86% of Australians believe in God.

No. 68% of Australians believe in “a God”. That includes Bhuddists, Muslims, Jews, Spiritualists and the smaller denominations. http://www.theage.com.au/national/faith-what-australians-believe-in-20091218-l5qy.html

Therefore, I have a very hard time understanding why there is such a problem in having ‘God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance or the Lord’s prayer said in our schools or public meetings.

Religion was removed from schools and politics because Australia has a secular government and education system. Those who hold a religious belief are free to express that belief but there are limitations on their ability to push that belief on others through national government agencies.

I believe it’s time we stand up for what we believe!

No. You are making a fuss because the world doesn’t exactly reflect what YOU believe.

If you agree, pass this on; if not, delete it.

Like i said, once upon a time i did this but eventually half-truths have a way of becoming lies, so i don’t do that any more.

Using a disabled soldier image in this way is just as bad as the “bad” things that this email rails against.

We live in Australia, where i am free to stick my thumb at whomever i please, to call the Prime Minister a tosser, and to follow whichever brand of divinity i like or none if that’s what i prefer. i expect others to give me a fair go, in the same way that they can expect a fair go from me. People are free to follow whichever religion they like, so long as they obey the country’s laws. Let’s not change that. If there are examples of Muslims acting illegally then they will and should be treated exactly the same as the Christian/Jew/Atheist who acts illegally.
Let’s not twist logic just to put across a limited point of view.

Feel free to delete my comments.

 *************************************************************************************

Is it best to ignore tripe like these racist, bigoted or just plain wrong emails or is it important enough to do something about?

It is logical to assume the person who drew the cartoon was trying for a completely different message to that put forward by whoever composed this email. The cartoon’s message seems clear enough – that there are people in America who do not appreciate the sacrifices made by the nation’s soldiers in carrying out their duties. The cartoon is obviously aimed at an American market – the back of the chair includes the motto adopted by the US Marine Corps in 1883 “Semper Fidelis” or “Always Faithful”, and Australia does not have a pledge as such. The cartoonist links a lack of participation in nationalistic declarations as a rejection of the efforts of soldiers and members of the armed forces, and there is at least a superficial link that could make the issue a sore point for some people.

The Vietnam War highlighted the social difficulties caused when a country goes to war and the home front is openly divided on whether the soldiers should be fighting at all. In both the US and Australia, commentary on military casualties are treated with due respect and deference in a bipartisan approach, and even if there is disagreement about aspects of military operations, most politicians are careful to differentiate their argument and try to make sure that they are not seen to be denigrating the efforts of soldiers carrying out orders. Politicians are representing all of their constituents, and it is appropriate that they take the steps that they do.

However, there is no reason why it should be the case that every person within a society has to agree with the actions of the armed forces in a particular conflict nor is there an obligation on every citizen to perform civic rites of one sort or another. An individual can and should have a multi-faceted view of the world, and simply falling into positions of compliance is not a very robust indication of a good citizen. So the cartoon has an emotive call to action but not an overly strong argument to put forward as justification.

It seems that someone in Australia has decided to use the cartoon to promote their own agenda. In doing so they have woven a fairly slap-shod series of statements and opinions that should not be used as a basis for deriving the conclusions being sought. And this style of email appears again and again and again, in a range of guises.

How do you deal with them?

the flying spaghetti monster

Still thinking about… A lack of faith

Lack of faith. No belief. An inability to accept an unsupported premise as an adequate supposition for a concluded belief. The absence of the “leap of faith” so essential to embarking on the journey of acceptance and opening of oneself to the rapture possible through the munificence of a greater being.

If you do not believe in God, what do you believe in? Is atheism a religion in itself? If you do not believe in God, is it better that you are atheist, agnostic or Hindu? That last throw-away line is a bit unfair but only partially, as immediately you ask if a person believes in God, you are saying that you do not believe in the possibility of more than one god, and are showing a rather blinkered view of the range of potential beliefs (legalistic disclaimer: “God” is a higher version of “god” unless it is inferred that it is not, in which case who knows what is being said…).

Why is this important? It’s important because those who ask questions of belief are doing so from a completely subjective viewpoint, and more often than not are dismissive or even oblivious of their own basis of belief. However…

Is atheism a lack of faith?

Still thinking about… religion. At least, the absence of an adherence to a religious belief.

“I believe in flight because it is a practical reality. It is a set of actions and reactions based on elementary physics, and its validity can be independently tested by anyone possessing appropriate knowledge and equipment.” Some atheists approach the issue of religion by taking this approach, and asking why they should accept a belief system by using a lower benchmark of proof than they would apply to any other topic?

But is this a valid approach? At what stage do the practical realities of limitations to knowledge step in to force belief as a replacement  for understanding and personal experience? “Not possible – i can get through life without belief!” i hear you retort. “100% likelihood of occurring” is my rather arrogant answer.

Distinguishing faith from understanding

The example of flight is one based on a mass of factors, which few people will bother to become proficient in just because they want to be absolutely certain of the validity of flight. Some people will be happy to fold a piece of paper, throw it and accept the wonder of flight. Others may question the process, and gain knowledge of wing shapes, surface area ratios, air pressure and airflow variances. They will most likely be quite clever and cunning in their design of even a folded paper aeroplane. They will be able to point to a substantial personal knowledge base of theory and application to underpin their certainty that they understand flight. There is no belief system required. And yet there is. How many people have taken the time to test the basics of flight in the negative? To show that the forces of air pressure are absent in a vacuum? If they haven’t, aren’t there levels of belief that are required in order to persist with the idea that it really is air pressure variances that are causing flight? Is there a chance, however slim, that other forces are at work? How about gravity? What understanding do we have of even this “obvious” factor? What independent testing have we performed to validate theories underpinning our understanding of gravity? Have we performed “negative” tests by considering the absence of gravity, and even if we have, what underlying assumptions are we making when determining appropriate experiments and collating results? Sooner or later, we are going to have to accept the truth of others. In other words, we are going to have to believe.

At some stage, we will all experience a shortfall in self-tested knowledge. At that point in time, we will fall back on the experiences, knowledge and understanding – the “truth” – of others. This isn’t just the case with dynamics surrounding the flight of a paper aeroplane. The reality is that we must make assumptions and rely on other people telling us truths in order to function in any society. Nobody has the time available to stop at every new experience to test validity. You can’t move through life collating a hierarchy of appropriately tested truths. Aside from anything else, our minds just don’t work that way. As children, we must learn how to walk, how to talk, how to eat, how to drink, how to identify safe food or liquids, how to interact with other human beings and a myriad other skills. Some are purely action/reaction and through practice and patience we will gain proficiency. We don’t really need to understand the physics behind walking to know that it is possible, we can just do it. We think that this means we understand walking but the reality is that there are leaps of faith even in the act of walking. Philosophically, we could point to Rene Descartes’ suggestion that we could all be automatons, controlled by a malevolent deity. In other words, we walk because we are forced to walk, and understanding or independent control is nothing but a foolish self-delusion.

Is this thinking around the issues of faith, belief and independently self-tested validity too vague? Is it thinking something out of nothing? Let’s give the benefit of the doubt and ensure we are Still Thinking. That’s one of the beauties of thinking, isn’t it – the lack of a need for purpose for the act of thinking to be a worthwhile endeavour? Back to the issue at hand – trying to identify where belief steps in…

Here’s an extreme example…

Apple release a new smartphone – the iThink. You don’t need to talk in to this phone. You don’t need to hold it to your ear to listen – nor do you need earplugs or a headset or even Bluetooth connectivity. So long as you have touched this phone at least once, and it has read your eye patterns then you only need think of an action and the iThink will carry out your request.

Marketing material for the iThink claims incredible capabilities. The brochure gives an example – if you want to start a website then you all you need do is to think through the style of site you want, your target audience, and your unique offering. Apple’s massive servers will filter the global database of appropriate formats, establish your iCloud account with an appropriately themed format, and seamlessly link all communications of this website through your existing accounts. It will link your social media with your bank accounts, and will report the operation of your website in both statistical format and via exception reporting for maintenance, monitoring and compliance issues.

Apple shares triple in anticipation of the huge profits to follow from such an empowerment of the average human beings’ individual creativity and innovation.

What if Apple’s marketing tells you that this is not a technological breakthrough – this new device is possible because Apple has discovered a direct link to God. Apple claims it can now prove the existence of God because nobody knows how the damn thing works. What Apple have discovered is not a new technology but a direct phone line to a greater being. One that knows an an awful lot about the world, has seeming unfettered access to the world as we know it, and cares enough about us all individually to offer a one-on-one experience. Apple executives stumbled on the God-link during a spiritual team-building exercise, and the key technology within the iThink only operates because of a dedicated team of thousands of faithful attending prayer workshops 24/7 in Apple deity-data-centres around the world.

What if you really couldn’t work out how the damn thing operates? Are you going to believe or are you going to assume that the Apple executives are pulling a swifty?

This is really a call to author Arthur C Clarke’s “third law”… “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic“. Is this suggesting that belief is linked to magic? Not really. We are simply asking ourselves where knowledge ends and faith starts.

Do we traverse our pathways through this world, and interpret our understanding of it, through faith? We do if we accept that faith is acceptance of an assumption that has not been validated through personal experience.

There’s a great book out there - What we believe but cannot prove. In it, distinguished scientists and notable dignitaries discuss a belief that they hold, which either has not or possibly can not be validated. In many cases, these are scientific “beliefs”.

So the question needs to be asked – “how does a scientific “belief” differ from a religious belief?” And don’t get all dismissive of this one. If you believe God is a being that truly is beyond our understanding, operating out of principles that defy our current knowledge of physics then how does that differ from a scientific theory that is waiting to be tested?

The easy negations of this thought are:

  • Science is a hierarchical set of interlaced theories based on millions of proven testable premises. Faith is not. It’s based on a book compiled from a series of biographical memoirs.
  • Believing in a possible future scientific discovery is different to believing in a all-knowing deity
  • The entire basis of belief is lost when you attempt to apply principles of proof or validity.

So, is atheism a lack of FAITH?

We haven’t really made much progress on this one, have we? We still need to consider:

  • Is atheism a lack of faith or simply an absence of faith? Is it a negation of faith or a simple disinterest in anything religion based?
  • If you don’t believe in a god/gods/spirituality then what do you believe in?
  • If you don’t believe in God then why do you even discuss religion at all? Why are so many atheists so insistent about their non-belief?
  • Why is it that atheists will often have a better than average knowledge of the facts surrounding religion?
  • Does atheism fail to distinguish between the possibility of God, and the impossibility of religion as a truth?
  • Does atheism have “denominations” for different orders of atheism?
  • Is relativism essential for atheism to take hold?
  • Is being agnostic a half-way house for atheists who haven’t quite taken the full step or is it an acceptance of the possibility of a god-like deity combined with a rejection of religion?
One view of atheism

An interesting view of atheism – click on the image for even more interesting discussion it provoked on the website that ran it.

As a by-the-by, i wonder if it is possible to think in heaven? If it is possible, is there a point to it? – as once you get there and you have already been exposed to all-that-there-is, you’d have to expect that you’ve gained a greater understanding of the world… at least, you’d hope so. Once you’ve achieved all of that, is there a point to thinking? Are you going to spend eternity in a “just being” mode?

If you’ve spent your life earning a place in heaven (and hopefully hanging around like minded folk ’cause if you haven’t then it’s going to be kinda lonely up there unless you’re really good at meeting people and making new friends) then will it become a bit of a “been there, done that” event when you eventually get over the initial excitement of encountering the ultimate presence and being proven correct?

So much to ponder, and such a short lifetime in which to do so. ‘Tis why we are Still Thinking. As a by-the-by, one of the principles of the posts on this site is that posts should be predominantly unresearched. That is, they are discussion points and thinking pathways – not answers in themselves. A fun activity is to read a post, and then to research (for most folk, that means “Google”) the topic to identify more academically robust and authoritative commentary. Should you do so, feel free to comment, critique or criticise. You can do so by signing in to this site or by calling by the StillThinking Facebook page (username: iamstillthinking) or tweeting to the @_StillThinking Twitter account. These accounts are updated far more often than this blog, as they contain shorter articles or deal with more transitory, current issues.

Thumbnail image source.

offensive language and offensive images

Still Thinking about… nationalism, racism and bigotry

* WARNING *

** this post contains offensive and confronting language and images **

What is it that stops the average person from seeing themselves as individuals in a larger world than their environmentally imposed borders?

It’s a little like the idea of Russian dolls, where concentric circles encompass ever reducing social environments, until the more obvious laws of reduction leave a single individual floating in amongst that mass of encircling forms. The more intimate forms are more obvious, and the link is close and clear. We are most obviously impacted by our immediate family - parents, siblings, children and grandparents, whether through lineage or adoption. Greater family links – cousins, uncles, aunties and the like – may be close or they may not be but “blood is thicker than water”, so an individual is likely to be able to relate or display empathy or sympathy or understanding to those in this circle than socially wider ones.

The next circle may be work or maybe a personal interest group or hobby. The individuals in those circles can lay a claim – however tenuous – on your time, loyalty and support.

What’s next? Your suburb, town or local community?

At what stage do your claims of membership or the demands of participation become so tenuous as to be invalid? It’s a tricky question. It’s so tricky that it is beguilingly straightforward. Ponder the entirety of the question for a little while. Here’s a little breathing space and entertainment to get you thinking.

It also puts a little space between the initial “offensive language” warning, and the actual offensive items. A little exposure to the eternal om doesn’t hurt anyone, either.

OK. So what thoughts have you thought’ed? Where do the claims of kinship, inclusion, rights and obligations start and where do they stop?

How about religion? If you are religious in one way or another, where does that start or stop allegiance? It’s easy enough to suggest or promote limits for negative action - “i won’t do ____ because it conflicts with my beliefs” is a good example but where do you stand when considering positive action? When would you step in to the line of fire to actively defend someone inside your particular circle? What about those on the edge of your circle? How about those who are completely outside your circle? It’s a difficult question, and one faced by many people in difficult situations throughout history.

Sport? What strings attach you to your team or the team management or supporters?

It’s not the role of this site to poke you into submission on one view or another nor is it to deflate your sense of self-worth by pointing to the inevitable failings we all share as imperfect human beings, so try not to become caught up on one particular aspect of this line of thinking. It’s more a case of taking a deep breath (intone “om” if it helps) and taking the time to consider just why you do what you do, and why you think what you think. At its most basic, we are really just trying to work out here WHAT we think.

That’s probably enough direction for now. Let’s look at a couple of images that fit into this thought bubble. There has been some angst as to whether to do so, as simply repeating a hateful image can be argued to be tantamount to support or promotion. Regardless, let’s look at what prompted this thought originally…

disgusting car bumper sticker - "fuck off, we're full". What drives people to display or even have such small-minded thinking?

What sort of mind thoughts lead a person to decide that displaying this sticker on their car is a good idea?

This is Australia’s overt display of redneck teambuilding. It’s pathetic, small-minded and shows an incredible lack of understanding of human history and the place an individual holds within any given community. Academics may point to the human tendency towards railing against “the other”, and this being nothing more than a low-brow version of such behaviour. It’s more than this though. It is an example of the need for positive action versus negative action. Simply reading it pulls the viewer into the limited thought bubbles of the owner of the car.

Here’s another image that uses similar English but takes a slightly different approach to the idea of inclusion or exclusion.

George Carlin - a big thinker with a passion for the human race and a hard-hitting way with words

George Carlin – a big thinker with a passion for the human race and a hard-hitting way with words

 So where do calls of allegiance start, and where do they end?

Just trying to work through the bigger issues, while living through the smaller ones.

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