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Sat, 31 Oct 2020
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Science of the Spirit


Ethics and Fundamental Values in Times of Corona

Morality, good and evil, devil and angel
When it comes to the so-called Corona crisis, everyone seems to be talking about numbers. Isn't the virus not much worse than the flu? If so, why didn't we have a lockdown during the flu season? And even if Covid-19 is worse - aren't the lockdown measures actually killing more people than the virus itself?

While these are valid and important arguments, they still operate on a simplistic utilitarian understanding of ethics: it's all about calculating the best outcome, counting the dead, maximizing humanity's well-being by weighing one thing (the virus) against another (the measures). The dispute is just about the variables.

But I think most of us who are critical of the current madness feel it in our bones that there is something deeply wrong here, and it has little to do with the numbers.

Suppose that this virus really was a deadly killer and we could reasonably expect it to kill off, let's say, 10% of the population in every country. Would you accept the current measures then? Would you find it okay that the state takes away your freedom and responsibility to come to the right decisions in your life? To visit your friend in trouble, to hug your father, to attend church, or to sell your products and services to those still willing to buy them?

More to the point, shouldn't you be able to decide whether you want to take the risk of visiting your fragile parents, if you don't have any symptoms for example, because this deep care outweighs the risk of transmitting the virus? Shouldn't the elderly decide for themselves whether they want to cuddle their grandchildren? Or shouldn't you be the one who decides whether to meet some friends to make some music or not, weighing between risk of death and the very thing that makes life worth living in the first place?

If your answer is no to any of those questions, then you are in trouble. Because in today's world, we seem to lack the knowledge to justify our gut feeling that some things just should never be prohibited, some freedoms never be curtailed, and some things never dictated by the state. If we say we want to attend church or hug our parents, or visit a friend who needs us, and somebody replies that this might kill people and surely, avoiding death is more important than hugging your dad, what are we to say? It leaves us speechless. We kind of see the point, but then again, we kind of don't.

And it's not enough to point to the constitution either. If we don't understand why something is in the constitution in the first place and can't defend it, if even just to ourselves, then why should anybody bother? People will just point out that saving lives is more important than some petty legal argument.

So let's take a step back and clear up a few things about the philosophical background of our Western constitutions and how this relates to the Corona measures.


Notions of freedom

bird flying freedom
We are living in strange times indeed, this crisis raises many questions about the nature of freedom and what our expectations are, or should be. Everyone has their own notions about what freedom means and how far that should extend to oneself and indeed, to everyone else. I want to start with a look at where we've come from before I look at where we are now, as I feel it gives a better understanding of our definitions of freedom and a better context for viewing where we are, at this moment in time.

Society probably started with the tribe - maybe not even having a leader if the numbers were small enough, say 10 people. Tribes of scores or more obviously became hard to manage and so, undoubtedly, this led to the idea of a leader or a group of leaders - a chief, or a council of chiefs. Such a system seems to have worked well, so long as the chiefs acted in the best interest of the tribe, and not in their own best interest. Tribes and early kingdoms often had a mechanism for dealing with a poor leader - the symbolic marriage of the leader to the land and the right to depose, or even execute, a leader that failed to live up to expectations. Such concepts of leadership are ancient but have survived in various places into the modern era, including Ireland where I live. Although the practice associated with this custom is long gone, knowledge of it remains vaguely in the public consciousness and more definitively in the realms of scholarship and Celtic Neo-Paganism. However, societies across the globe began to move beyond this cherished accountability millennia ago - with the rise of despotic monarchy, something that still exists as an unfortunate anachronism even now.

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MindMatters: Sufism: An Introduction To Its Meaning And Purpose

Over the past few decades a large amount of the Western public's attention has been drawn to Islam in the form of fundamentalist belief and practice. This movement, and its effects on the Muslim community and Middle Eastern societies in particular, has proved nothing short of disastrous for many. But what is largely unknown to most is the inner tradition, wisdom and philosophy known as Sufism; what some consider to be the 'mystical' dimension of Islam. Through the poems of Rumi, the writings of Ibn Arabi, and analysis by academics like Prof. William C. Chittick we come to learn that Sufism - as it was inspired and conceived - laid out a cosmology for individuals that sought to help individuals grow 'spirituality' through the rigorous use of their minds.

This week on MindMatters we discuss several ideas central to Sufism: the nature and value of 'transmitted' knowledge - compared to direct knowledge and understanding, the striving towards perfection of man's inner nature, and the process of nothing less than coming closer to God; knowing one's self in order to know God, and vice versa. Along these lines we also look at some correspondences with Gurdjieff's philosophy and methods for working on the self. Far from being a mere footnote in religious and philosophical thought, Sufism couldn't be more relevant to a world that has effectively moved away from God and away from one's own relationship to the higher order of the Universe.

Running Time: 01:02:10

Download: MP3 — 56.9 MB


Defining emotions: The importance of addressing our feelings with clarity

facial expressions
The language we use to describe the the way we feel can shape our emotions and mental well-being.

With an uncertain timeline for shelter-in-place and higher baseline anxiety levels across populations, it's become harder than ever to find a straightforward answer to the simple question: "how are you?"

While many of us tend to respond with an all-encompassing, "Things are crazy right now," or "I'm doing okay," psychologists recommend being as honest as possible — at least for our own sake if not for others'.

According to Mark Miller — a Mindful USC coordinator, clinical psychologist and avid meditator of 25 years — accurately identifying our emotions can help us understand what we're experiencing.

"When we're able to label and know what we're experiencing, then we objectify the experience a little bit," said Miller. "It's still our experience, right? We're still feeling it, but it gives us some perspective being able to name what's happening."

But how, exactly, do we pinpoint an emotion in the messy mix of physical sensations and thoughts that compose a feeling?

Book 2

Stoicism in times of pandemic: Some guidance from Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius
© DEA/G DAagli Orti/De Agnostini via Getty Images
A bust of Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity. During the last 14 years of his life he faced one of the worst plagues in European history. The Antonine Plague, named after him, was probably caused by a strain of the smallpox virus. It's estimated to have killed up to 5 million people, possibly including Marcus himself.

From AD166 to around AD180, repeated outbreaks occurred throughout the known world. Roman historians describe the legions being devastated, and entire towns and villages being depopulated and going to ruin. Rome itself was particularly badly affected, carts leaving the city each day piled high with dead bodies.

In the middle of this plague, Marcus wrote a book, known as the Meditations, which records the moral and psychological advice he gave himself at this time. He frequently applies Stoic philosophy to the challenges of coping with pain, illness, anxiety and loss. It's no stretch of the imagination to view Meditations as a manual for developing precisely the mental resilience skills required to cope with a pandemic.

Comment: You can download a copy of "Meditations" by Marcus Aurelius for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg: Meditations by Emperor of Rome Marcus Aurelius


New study finds sexist beliefs are associated with narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism

evil stare
The dark triad is a combination of three negative personality traits: narcissism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. It is more common for this set of traits to be found among men, and it can be spotted through characteristics like selfishness, impulsivity, and opportunism. Those who gain success at the workplace without regard to getting along with others are likely to score high on measures of the dark triad.

How does one develop these traits? Is it due to genetics or does society play a role in forming individuals with these undesirable personality characteristics? A study published in Personality and Individual Differences attributes it to sexism.

Researchers from the University of Florida suggest that the dark triad might be misproduced by society's promotion and maintenance of men's dominant social position over women. To test this, Melissa Gluck and her colleagues set out to investigate whether any form of sexism is associated with the development of this particular set of negative traits.

Eye 2

'Successful' psychopaths learn crucial skills that let them walk among us

Psychopath advisory
They walk among us — psychopaths.

These individuals possess a unique constellation of traits: callousness to others' suffering, a grandiose sense of self-worth, and a manipulative approach to dealing with others. Typically, such antisocial tendencies result in incarceration and other forms of exclusion from society. Yet some psychopathic individuals are able to suppress their psychopathic impulses enough to remain members of society. Many even rise to the upper ranks of business, law, and government.

Yet, what allows some psychopathic individuals to wind up as 'successful' versus those who find themselves incarcerated for their harmful and impulsive behavior?

In a recently-published article in the journal Personality Disorders, Emily Lasko, M.S., and I tested whether a very specific psychological process, impulse control, contributed to the development of 'successful' psychopathy. We analyzed data from the Pathways to Desistance study, which followed over 1,000 adolescents (who were convicted of serious criminal offenses) over multiple years to examine what factors predicted who would get convicted for re-offenses and who would not.

Comment: See also: Ponerology 101: Lobaczewski and the origins of Political Ponerology


Thinking about your thinking: 7 ways to improve critical thinking skills

Man looking at sunset
© Unsplash/Chetan Menaria
When I was in 7th grade, my U.S. history teacher gave my class the following advice:
Your teachers in high school won't expect you to remember every little fact about U.S. history. They can fill in the details you've forgotten. What they will expect, though, is for you to be able to think; to know how to make connections between ideas and evaluate information critically.
I didn't realize it at the time, but my teacher was giving a concise summary of critical thinking. My high school teachers gave similar speeches when describing what would be expected of us in college: it's not about the facts you know, but rather about your ability to evaluate them.

And now that I'm in college, my professors often mention that the ability to think through and solve difficult problems matters more in the "real world" than specific content.


Experimenting with Homeschooling offers an opportunity to cultivate the virtues of independence & original thinking

I was homeschooled for eight years, from age 11 through to college, before it was a novel way for tiger parents to show off their dynamic commitment to their children's education. Now, if millions of parents and families are suddenly going to be homeschooling their kids for the coming weeks (and, let's be honest, quite likely beyond), it's worth trying to think about how to do this in a manner as smooth, healthy and wise as possible.

Learning at home is quite different from learning at school. It requires us to reorient how we think about learning in general, and how we approach the process with our children - maybe even with ourselves, too. Historically, education has been the province of parents. But the question of how kids spend their time, and learn, and grow, is one to which society as a whole should pay more substantive attention, instead of leaving it to the professional advocates and their tired debates about charter schools, unions and uniforms.

Comment: Read more about homeschooling:

Alarm Clock

Time management: 6 techniques from the Stoic philosopher Seneca

time seneca
© Quotefancy, Youtube
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not." ― Seneca
Locked in prison by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) in Shakespeare's Richard II, Richard II gives a haunting speech about his hopeless fate. One line stands out, as it captures perfectly, the reality of nearly every human being — indeed, it sounds like it was cribbed from Seneca's On The Shortness of Life. "I wasted time," Richard II says, "and now doth time waste me."

We think that time is ours to waste. We even say, "We have two hours to kill" or speak of dead time between projects. The irony! Because time is the one that's killing us. Each minute that passes is not just dead to us, it brings us closer to being dead. That's what Richard II realizes in that prison cell. Only now is he realizing that each second that ticks by is a beat of his heart that he won't get back, each ringing bell that marks the hour falls upon him like a blow.

Comment: For more on Stoicism, see: