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Friday, November 19, 2010


Bill Fleming

Interesting that KB puts the onus on me to provide examples of moral relativism being alive and well in contemporary society. He's either a master debater/chess player, moving me into a position to advance conservative arguments I typically don't support, or simply so idealistic he can't see the forest for the trees. But whatever, I'll bite. Here are a few "relativist" moral arguments currently in play in our society:

1. We say abortion is murder, even as we make exceptions for rape, incest, and the mothers health. And even abortions most harsh critics are loathe to actually call the mother a murderer.

2. We justify acts of torture with reasoning like the "ticking time bomb" scenario and other Cheney-esque arguments. We ignore war crimes recognized by the rest of the world when it suits our "national defense" agenda.

3. We allow ourselves to be humiliated and now inspected and prodded like cattle in airports in the name of safety and national security.

4. We abhor the institution of slavery even as we exclude farm labor and domestic workers from our labor laws, refusing to grant that class of workers the same collective bargaining rights all other Americans enjoy.

5. We say we're are created equal and yet routinely discriminate concerning race, gender, creed, and sexual orientation on both personal and structural societal (legal) levels.

6. We claim to be a peaceful nation and yet we invade other countries, occupy them, and rain terror on their people in the name of national defense.

There are more of course, too numerous to mention. But those should get the ball rolling.

Bill Fleming

Here's an interesting supplement to my list above:

Bill Fleming

"Moral principles are as real as principles of hygiene. Evil is as real as the Ebola virus. These are good things to know. So I think that, at least in some cases, God loves the pious because it is pious. A rational explanation of morality doesn't mean that faith is unfounded or unnecessary. However we conceive of the Creator, this is how He created us. Perhaps we cannot be good without faith in and fear of God."


God creates both the Ebola virus and we humans who have no immunity to it — both the neanderthal man, and the bear who wants to eat him, and the deadly serpent, and his fellow Cro Magnon "evil" human.

"Evil" is in the eye of the beholder, KW. The mountain lioness in the Black Hills isn't "evil" — and thus anathema before the Lord. She's just hungry, and wants to eat your neighbors' young bull calves.

Bill Fleming

It's all relative.

larry kurtz

KW, Bill? Where the hell am I?

Doc, reading the torture rationale as designed by psychologists and divined by the Bush43 lawyers makes every American complicit, if not culpable for war crimes and crimes against humanity.



Bill: then say it. Throwing children alive into the fire is not better or worse than vaccinating them. I don't think you are really so dissolute as to believe that, and if I am right, then you don't know what you think.

Bill Fleming

Vaccinating children is better than burning them alive
for any number of good reasons, KB.

The least of which is because God says so.

That's my point.

Conversely, teaching children that if they
don't obey God's (fill-in-the-blank) rule,
they will burn in hell is second in torment
to their little minds only to the actual act
of physically doing it.


Bill: you are arguing with the wrong person. I am pushing natural right, not Divine Right.

larry kurtz

Food and reproduction is all there is and sometimes I wonder about food.

What good are any rights without the means to enforce them? Does relativism not rely on the existence of the rule of law since humans insist on the exercise of free will as an absolute?

What about the Neanderthals caused their evolutionary dead-end? Jared Diamond might argue that the inability to adapt caused their demise.

Doc: your whole premise suggests that you may be suffering a from an Omega 3 deficiency. Are you chronically depressed?

Bill Fleming

Okay, KB. Thanks for the clarification. Sometimes it's not easy to tell that. Your writings still seem inclined toward dualism to me. Perhaps I need you read you with more focus and less prejudice.


Thanks, everyone, for an entertaining and enlightening discussion.

Dr. Blanchard: On irrationality - I accept your argument. I also agree that murder would still be wrong if we were given a GET OUT OF JAIL FREE CARD. I was not trying to argue something was only wrong because we might get caught doing it. Instead, I was trying to argue that your version of things seems to strip both evil and good of their souls. Why should we care if we do something evil if all evil is is acting against instincts? Or is evil actually something else?

You say that evil is as real as the Ebola virus - but you don't say why or how we know that. Just stating it doesn’t make it true. Yes, biting one's hand hurts. That proves that pain exists, not that evil does. Or would you argue that evil and pain are the same thing?

At any rate, I think we can agree that evil is real. But the question isn’t “Is evil real?” It is “What is evil?” You say there is horror in human history without having to consider Satan. But are we sure that the things we consider horrific really evil and is evil really horrific? As Bill points out, wild animals can tear us apart. But we do not generally consider them as evil as we consider the Nazi’s to be. Why bother to make the separation?

Why not call it all evil if all it boils down to are survival mechanisms and instincts? Finally, you say, “To destroy oneself spiritually is the worst thing that can happen to a human being, Socrates supposed.” I agree. This is why I am so leery of explanations that seem to leave out the spiritual parts of good and evil.


Er. Get rid of that apostrophe in Nazis. Sorry!

larry kurtz

Good eye, Ms. Flint. This aired recently: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=131099083 the comments reflect some of what is happening here.

Bill Fleming

"Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god."
— Jean Rostand, Thoughts of a Biologist (1939)

The trouble with some religious precepts is that they oftentimes appeal to aspects of our "humanness" that we have come to regard over time as less than desirable. It's as though we and our "God concept" are evolving simultaneously, which I would indeed argue that they are.

In his book "The Third Chimpanzee" Jared Diamond identifies several of these aspects that appear to be unique to our species. Among these are a tendency to become addicted to substances, a seemingly inherent xenophobia, and a willingness to consciously commit genocide, driving members of or own species as well as other species into extinction.

I submit that we (and by extension our "God") are in the process of awakening to the "evil" in these aspects of ourselves and have been throughout the history of conscious thought. There is something in us that appears to be driving our sense of altruism in this regard. Is that what you are referring to when you talk about "spiritual?"


Bill: I would submit to you that it is possible that the only reason humans are more prone to addiction than other animals is that we have the ability to put addictive substances into forms that are highly usable. As it turns out, “socially inferior” monkeys enjoy cocaine:

On Spirituality: I certainly think that spirituality tends to push us toward altruism, but I see it as more than just that. It isn’t just about altruism. If I can borrow a phrase from the Gnostics, it’s the “divine spark” in the human existence (though I don’t think the divine spark is trying to break free).

Mr. Kurtz: The topics the speakers bring up in the link you provide are interesting, and I thank you for the link. However, I found the discussion to be highly one-sided, very biased, and full of opinions presented as fact.

Particularly embarrassing, I think, was the attitude of the speakers toward religion and, in particular, the Catholic Church, whose positions were misrepresented and then bashed. The sniggering when religion was even brought up was rather immature, I think, for this sort of “intellectual crew” and it made it hard for me to take them as seriously as I might otherwise have. I also found the view that science was responsible for every good in both scientific advancement and morality a bit ludicrous. The scientific community has often been more harmful to science than religion and to pretend that Christianity has not had some good influence on morality is I think, to be purposely obtuse.

Bill Fleming

Interesting, Mirianda. I'm somewhat familiar with the Gnostics. So would you say that that "spark" is part of our "humanness." Or more a part of our "Godliness"? i.e. is it what sets us apart from the other animals? Is it separate from "nature." Supernatural? Or does that level of consciousness arise as a function of brain evolution?

Bill Fleming

By the way, Miranda, good point about addiction and our ability to create more sophisticated intoxicants. It brings up a couple of things, but to me, perhaps the mist significant is technology. Earlier, Larry was wondering if the reason we were more successful than other hominid species was because of our "adaptability." I think there's a good argument to be made for it being our technology. i.e. he who creates the best toys wins.

larry kurtz

Hmmm, Ms. Flint, my apologies to you for not screening the interview for sniggering scientists.

You should know, however, that in 1967, I was considering the Priesthood following in the steps of our beloved parish priest. He was a Marlboro-smoking, Scotch-drinking, NFO-bolstering man-of-the-Earth who had convinced me that a life as God's servant was my destined future. He was decapitated in a car accident while returning from Pierre after testifying to the Legislature. Pretty much cured me.

He was replaced by a slimeball whose behavior sent me to college looking for God in Physics rather than in literature. While I feel justified in bashing The Church at will, having lost respect for white guys in vestments diddling children in the name of Christ.

larry kurtz

,...now I type incomplete sentences.


Bill: I'm not sure I would separate the two. For the Christian (in this case, me), God has created man in his own image. God also interacts with mens' souls. I would argue, then, that part of what makes us human is our ability to interact with the supernatural.

On technology: I think you bring up a good possibility, but if technology isn't part of adaptability, what is it?

Larry: I am not offended by the sniggering and don't need a censor. But I think the inability of the speakers to take those with opposing opinions seriously makes them harder to respect.

I am very sorry about what happened to your priest and I am not
asking anyone to refrain from criticism of Christianity (which I practice) or Catholicism (which I don't). But I think a more professional panel would have been more respectful of caller questions and more willing to have an actual debate. Instead, a bunch of guys who agreed with each other, sat down to agree that they were all smart and giggled like schoolchildren when someone brought up something they didn't like.

larry kurtz

Ira Flatow is Jewish and often displays his disgust for christianity and its ample history of genocidal tendencies.

While ip discarded The Church long ago for having co-opted christianity as a tool of conquest, my respect for the teachings of jesus of nazareth lives on: ie. "the greatest of these is love." The writings of Joseph Campbell taught me to accept humanity as the sum of its mythologies and to tolerate the musings of those clinging to god and guns as fellow children of stardust.

larry kurtz

I should add that I believe the state of Israel is illegal.

Bill Fleming

Yes, again the classic "chicken or the egg question." Do we have a "God concept" because we have a reflective consciousness, or do we have a reflective consciousness because God gave us one so we could "sense" God's presence?

And by extension, pertaining to consciousness, is it a function of biological complexity, especially in the nervous system? Or is our (mankind's) complex nervous system the lowest possible level of development required to "tune in" to a universal cosmic consciousness that has always been there?

It occurs to me that neither answer necessarily requires anything "supernatural." Just our incomplete understanding of natural phenomena.


Larry: My grandfather was a Jew who came to America from Czechoslovakia. He was one of the most delightful people a person could meet. I have attended services as the local synagogue and even took a Hebrew class there for a brief time (which I thoroughly enjoyed). My experiences with Judaism have given me nothing but respect for it. Furthermore, I think that Israel has a right to exist and that it has earned this right many times over.

But I think Flatow is being a bit silly. It is true that Christians have often treated the Jews very badly. But the Jews have also tried to wipe out the Christians. Sometimes they conspired with the Romans to do so. If Flatow means to hold Christianity accountable for its crimes against Jews, then it is only fair that he holds Judaism accountable for its crimes against Christianity. Still, while I dislike Flatow's take on things, I rather like yours.

Bill Fleming

Regarding "technology" I would classify it as "proactive specific creation" of new conditions as opposed to "reactive generalized acceptance" of existing ones. The former changes the world as we know it, the later changes us to better cope with the world as it is. I'm just spitballing that though, Miranda. It could well be that technology is a form of adaptation.


No, I like this new idea! Why is it, would you say that we have this creation ability that other animals seem to lack?


I missed your "chicken in the egg" comment, Bill. I believe the second answer to both questions is closest to right. But I'm interested in hearing how the other side works. I do think that, in order to include God in our explanations we would have to include something supernatural - but maybe not!

larry kurtz

Ms. Flint: Eve swam to sapience.

What characteristics assured the success of one sapient hominid to survive and reproduce amidst a savage, predator-infested environment? Researchers are focused on ancient African river deltas searching for evidence that the earliest humans foraged for mollusks and the eggs of seabirds.

These aquatic hominids were no longer reliant on knuckle-walking as the buoyancy of water enables upright wading. Usually, she waded just deep enough to hide from or repel marauding hyenas and just shallow enough to leap away from crocodilians while an infant clung to her, fingers entwined in ample head and body hair.

Shellfish-crushing molars had evolved to replace the canine teeth more prevalent in other primates (now sometimes disappearing in modern humans), because she learned to soften food, especially meat, with fire. Wading and diving into deeper water lead to the development of her voluntary breath control, a trait absent in other primates and a core requirement for the evolution of language.

Some have dubbed her Mitochondrial Eve.

Having adapted logs to aid her migration from deltas to islands to continents beyond her native Africa, Richard Dawkins says her 2.5 million year swim continues to this day.

Humans' genetic relationship to a history of riparian life runs deep.

larry kurtz

Ms. Flint: are you "springer?"


Mr Kurtz: Interesting! I like the image of this sort of Eve. Now! Who is the Mitochondrial serpent? I wish I could answer your question, but I am not sure what a "springer" is.

larry kurtz

Please forgive me. There is a commenter at the War Toilet using that handle.

When did humans evolve evil? I have argued it happened with the agrarian: Cain, the farmer slew Abel, the hunter/gatherer. Here is Darwin's take: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=124115282

Humans have a common ancestor with the Mitochondrial serpent: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=121426659


Miranda: I do not agree that my account of natural right "leaves out the spiritual parts of good and evil." This is partly because I do not believe that the question "Is there a soul?" is a viable question. Nothing is more obvious than the existence of the soul. Every human being has a body, every part of which is potentially visible and tangible and every human being has a soul, which is invisible and intangible to all other creatures. We can never feel someone else's pain or touch someone else's compassion. The soul is, at least for now, perfectly private

Whether the soul is immortal or not is a viable question. Like Socrates, I am forbidden to take a position on certain questions and in my case this is one of them. I can only say that reason cannot tell us whether the soul is immortal or not. Reason can tell us that souls can be healthy or sick, just as bodies can. Like Socrates, I think that evil in its most basic sense is precisely a disease of the soul. So I don't think the spiritual part of evil is being left out at all.

Evil corrupts human souls and corrupts human communities. Stalin turned the Soviet Union into a waking nightmare in which the state was an engine of mass murder and everyone around him was a whisper away from death. He also descended into paranoid delusions. He feared everyone and everything. That is spiritual disease.

Resisting evil is not a matter of going with or against instincts in general. It's a matter of deciding which instincts in which context promote human flourishing, and which will make enemies of my friends or make me and enemy to myself. I think that, for the most part, we all know which is which most of the time.

Human passions, to use a better term than instincts, are frequently at odds with one another. We can be tempted to do something and afraid to do it at the same time. That supports Socrates insight that the soul consists of parts. The same is true of animals, but in the case of all animals but one the issue is decided by balance and outcome. Human beings can reason. We can ask what actions are just actions? What actions keep me in possession of myself? What actions makes friends of those who can be friends? Because of the answer to those questions depends on an accurate appraisal of human nature, we speak of natural right.

One final point: neither evolution nor ethics is about "survival instincts." What counts in evolution is not survival, except in an instrumental sense; what counts is successful reproduction. Everyone of us is the most recent in a long line of successful reproducers. If evolution had not favored the passions that promote friendship and justice, those passions would not be a feature of our species. If you don't believe me, ask the Shakers.

In ethics what we are concerned with is not survival. As Aristotle puts it, the polis came to be for the sake of mere life (=survival), but it exists for the good life. What ethics is about is the best life we can live here of this earth.


Somehow we have ended up on the same page or at least a similar one. My objection was only to what I perceived as reductionism. It looks as if I was mistaken. Though I should have known better as we went through the soul debate some time ago.
Once again, I find myself with nothing to disagree with.


Mr. Kurtz: No apology necessary. The War Toilet sounds like the ultimate high-flush pedestal! Where can I buy one?

On a more serious note - I have posted on The War College blog, but only once or twice and only with my own name. Thanks again for the links! I will have a listen!

Bill Fleming

I wouldn't question the existence of a "soul" KB, but I would question the "privacy" of it as well as the individuality of it. All of that discussion of course would have to come after we differentiate your concept of "soul" from that of "consciousness" and "self."

Bill Fleming

...presuming you do so differentiate... perhaps you don't?

larry kurtz

Soul, shmoul. Some thinkers even doubt the existence of the mind, let alone something as superfluous as soul. Dragons. Now, there's something worth believing in: http://www.npr.org/2010/11/16/131362653/peerless-pterosaur-could-fly-long-distance-for-days

Bill Fleming

"Some thinkers even doubt the existence of mind..." Hilarious. An oxymoron if I ever saw one.

larry kurtz

Glad ip can make you laugh when it's below zero, Bill.

"Thinking" is not a biological construct; it is a word humans use to describe a process not yet fully understood. We have had some of this discussion in other places. The existence of "mind" has yet to be proved. Ornithologists have concluded that chickadees have a language based solely on their relationships to predators: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4715569

Humans tend to take themselves far too seriously, imho. Greed evolved because as a reaction to survival, so did altruism.

Bill Fleming

Larry, my wife Suzie has this great little hand lettered ceramic tile that she hung over the door going out to our garage. It says "Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most."

I'm pretty sure she put it there for my benefit and edification.

larry kurtz

On this day in 1963, I was sitting in a third-grade classroom when Sister Clarence rushed in to make the announcement. Then, we knelt and prayed.


So Bill: can you feel someone else's pain? Do you have any way of knowing whether other people even have consciousness? If not, then the soul remains utterly private.

Larry: thanks for playing the role of court jester. No serious thinker questions the existence of mind, for reasons that Bill indicates. Information goes in and it is processed. The question is what minds are. I think soul is a much better term because it mains the connection between mental states and organic processes. Aristotle uses it quite successfully while avoiding anything the slightest bit supernatural.

Bill Fleming

Yes, and yes, KB. So can you. We are empaths. You call it cooperation, I call it empathy/compassion. I'm guessing those were trick questions? Koans maybe? Either that or you've been neglecting your zazen practice of late.

;^) Namaste, Sensei.

larry kurtz

Yer welcome, Doc. Bliss has been very, very good to me. Hope you find some. 'til then.

Bill Fleming

Okay, cool. So we can talk about "souls" and not have to get supernatural about it. I suppose we could quibble about "mental states" actually BEING "organic processes," KB, but let's leave that for another time. We have now to establish "which" mental states comprise the soul. We have a plethora of options... waking, sleeping, dreaming, mindfulness, alpha, beta, theta, delta, gamma, cognitive, reflexive, creative, reactive, reflective, intuitive, oceanic, id, ego, super ego, inner child, inner parent, adult, fight, fight, freeze... yadda, yadda, yadda... The mind boggles... literally.

It's TMI!

Are any of these mental states more likely to be the "soul" in your estimation, KB?

Or is the soul somehow a composite of all of them?

Or something else entirely?

Bill Fleming

The problem with KB's definition of "soul" in my estimation, is that it implies an object possessed, as in "we all HAVE a soul."
In other words "my soul belongs to me." To which I reply, "belongs to whom? Who are you then?"

Bill Fleming


Bill Fleming

I'm sure if KB reviews his notes, he will reconsider his assertion that the "soul" is private and individual. Indeed, the concept of "I" without an accompanying "thou" is as meaningless as the idea of "light" would be in the absence of "darkness." Perhaps better would be to say that the "soul" is the "you" in me, and the "me" in you. Namaste.

Bill Fleming

Some visual aids:

I doubt if Socrates would dispute this, by the way, KB although he did take some inductive leaps with the idea that are somewhat questionable. Probably because he tried to keep it all so dang "personal." ;^)

Bill Fleming



Bill: I think you get the zen teaching wrong. Uchiyama Roshi wrote that no one can share a fart. See his interpretation of Dogen's instructions for the cook. He was talking in a very poetic, if entertainingly vulgar way, about the perfectly private character of experience.

I am not in fact arguing that the soul is something that is possessed, anymore than the fresh water side of an upriver tide is something that is possessed. I just think that the freshwater and saltwater sides are different. I think that the "no self" doctrine of zen is correct.

Bill Fleming

KB, fair enough. Who would even presume to argue with a fart?
My son the Jazz musician had the insight to speculate that
farts are what happen when we suppress a laugh.

Bill Fleming

Endnote: Sometimes conversations like these have delightful, tangental — if perhaps unintended — consequences. In his assertion regarding flatulence above, it seems KB may have answered the abiding question in Beckett's 'Waiting for Godot' even more explicitly than Becket himself ever deigned to.

No not THAT question, the other one:

" Who farted?"

The script tells us that "Pozzo" did it.

KB gives the deeper insight that Pozzo, the slave owner, was actually a "nobody" (no self).

A good business man, perhaps, but totally dependent on his slave "Lucky" for everything he knows.

larry kurtz

"When you find your servant is your master."

Bill Fleming

Right, Larry. Then the question becomes, are you "wrapped around his finger" or just pulling on it? ;^)


I reserve the right to publish this thread. Damn good reading. Maybe Godot can review it for us.


All your hand wringing is angels on the head of a pin. Enjoy going round and round in circles.

You're wasting your life worrying about it. Decide for yourself what you believe is right, then test it our in your real world and see what you learn from it. That is what we all do, anyway, so all this blather about the mind of God and all is trying to read a mind none of us has any idea about, and that is a losing proposition: In the end you would be dissatisfied and frustrated. And probably end up being bitter about some aspect of not having figured it out.

Save your breath...


F2F: you waste a lot of breath telling us not to waste our breath. Sorry. We here insist on thinking.


Long ago, I read that there are two kinds of atheists.

One posits that there is no God, therefore I can do anything I want. (The latter part of that seems to be applied by quite a few who "have God on their side" - that, because God is on their side, they can do whatever they want, because God will forgive them if they ask nicely.

The other type of atheist, I read, took the position that, because there is no God, then someone has to step in and be the conscience for life here on Earth; we simply cannot exist for long without some conscience guiding us. In this viewpoint, then, God is our anthropomorphizing of our consciences - feeding it back into ourselves.

While there must have been some intelligence (singular or plural - I favor plural) that created/engineered the universe and some basic building blocks therein, it does not necessarily follow that such an entity or group would start keeping score, acting as behavior police - especially not in absentia.

In the absence of tangible, in-your-face evidence of interactions by such entity(ies), all efforts to read Its/its/His/his/hers/Hers/their/Their mind is an exercise in lunacy. De facto, all we have is ourselves to decide and to judge our actions. Thus, religious or atheist, we all are left with the same division of the atheists I read about long ago. If there is a God or gods, there is no proof whatsoever that it takes any active part in anything at all happening here, whether animal vegetable, mineral or human. The existence of the universe is not proof one way or another. The projection(s) of our consciences does not a god make.

Left to our own devices, then, are we good people? Are we good neighbors? Are we generous? Are we kind? Do we hold up our end of the bargain, be it in supporting ourselves or in our dealings with others? Like good Boy Scouts, do we leave a campsite/the world in no worse shape than we found it? And last but far from least: Do we genuinely LIKE ourselves?

We can pretend that there is a God, though we have no solid evidence of such, and we can populate him with whatever piousness we choose to, but in the end it is our own thoughts and actions that matter. We make the choices, and there is NO tangible evidence that we are ever judged as pious or impious by some entity(ies) on high. If we see such a mindset in another culture we judge them deluded.

Angels on the head of a pin - what GOOD does it do to worry about it?

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