Sunday, February 17, 2013

Being Peace

Book Review: Being Peace by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press 1987)

Thich Nhat Hanh writes some very good books. They are typically easy to read and deceptively simple yet subtly profound. I would highly recommend his books for those interested in Buddhism or contemplative practice. This book is about peace and cuts to the heart of the matter, that without cultivating inner peace and peaceful relationships with our inner circle of folk it is hard to practice peace in society. Thich Nhat Hanh became a monk at a young age. He suffered much along with his people during wartime  in his native Vietnam. He tried to remain neutral but was exiled and settled in France. His style of Zen Buddhism is interwoven with a soft style of activism known as “Engaged Buddhism.” This book is nicely illustrated with simple but elegant drawings (similar to the content) by Mayumi Oda.

Hahn says that mere suffering is not enough. We also need to be in touch with the wonders of life. He advocates mindfulness as a way to be in touch with all that life offers – the suffering and the wonders.

“Meditation is to be aware of what is going on – in the body, in our feelings, in our minds, and in the world.”

He advocates (in several of his books) cultivating a gentle smile and enjoying things like meditation and breathing. We can practice with delight rather than struggle. We can remind ourselves through the formula that he suggests: inhale – think “calm”, exhale – think “smile”, inhale – think “present moment”, and exhale – think “wonderful moment”. This is simple and yet very concise and available. We can also remember that all beings have Buddha Nature which is simply the capacity to be awake or undeluded. This is also the capacity to love and to understand, to be compassionate and wise. So it is one’s own awakened nature that one relies on in the formula of taking refuge in the Buddha. The three refuges are Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha – teacher, teachings, and community of assistants. 

Hanh tells of a boy who encounters the Buddha in walking meditation after he (Buddha) went for a swim. He says he would like to give Buddha something and Buddha suggests a handful of grass. This is the kusha grass Buddha used for a seat on his final time/night before enlightenment. This boy was a tender of water buffaloes and during the first week or so of Buddha’s enlightenment he saw only the milk maid (who delivered yogurt to him) and the boy who tended water buffaloes. Earlier, the milk maid found Buddha starving and emaciated and feeling sorry for him offered him some yogurt. He took some and regained his health. The Sutta of Tending Buffaloes list the eleven skills of a buffalo boy as well as eleven skills of monks. It was only after this time that Buddha went back to visit his five ascetic friends who renounced him after they found out he was eating yogurt which helped him regain his bodily strength. When he found them he gave his first teaching on the four noble truths.

Dharma is the Buddha’s teaching. Dharmakaya is the body of the Buddha’s teaching. Hahn notes that we can recognize the Buddha’s teaching in any sight or sound or smell or thought that appears before us. Dharmakaya has come to mean something like “ontological ground of being,” he says. In a story echoing a similar Chinese/Japanese one there is the 13th century Vietnamese teacher Tue Trung being asked by a monk. “What is the pure, immaculate Dharmakaya?” The teacher pointed to the excrement of a horse. The import is that Dharmakaya is beyond words and adjectives so ideas like pure and immaculate cannot truly be distinguished from the impure and the messy and the sloppy. All can be recognized as the body of the Buddha’s teachings. We can potentially understand reality in any situation and from any source. The body of the Sangha, or community, is anything or anyone that supports our love and understanding. The first body of the sangha with Buddha were the Bodhi tree, the buffalo boy, the milk maiden, and his five ascetic friends. Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are really one and the same, he says.

In describing feelings and perceptions, two of the five aggregates (body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness), he notes that the Abhidharma teaching say that they may be pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. Which they are, he says, depends on one’s state of mind.

“If you practice awareness, you suddenly become very rich, very very happy. Practicing Buddhism is a clever way to enjoy life. Happiness is available. Help yourself to it. All of us have the capacity of transforming neutral feelings into pleasant feelings …”

Certainly, how we perceive things influences how we react to things. Hahn gives a rather simplistic version of dependent co-arising where my happiness depends on you and vice versa and taking care of oneself is one sure means of taking care of others since each is dependent on the other.

Thich Nhat Hanh notes that in order to understand the object of our perception we need to become one with that object. This is non-duality of perception, of perceiver and perceived. Similarly, in physics the observer has become the participant. The terms “non-dual” or “not two” are preferred over the term “one” since one implies its opposite, so two. Understanding what appears before us is important since it is this understanding that can transform destructive emotions such as anger into love and compassion.

In order to understand things as they are, he says, we must be ready to abandon our views about them. He tells a story the Buddha told regarding this: A man, a widower, was away on business and while he was away bandits came and burned down his whole village and took away his 5-year old son. He found a charred corpse nearby he thought was his son. The child escaped and returned home at night but the father would not open the door. He did not believe the boy to be his son. He shouted for the boy to go away and so he left. This is a simple story about clinging too hard to a belief. Letting go of knowledge and views is important in developing deeper understanding:

“Knowledge is solid; it blocks the way of understanding. Water [understanding] can flow, can penetrate.”

Thich Nhat Hanh often talks about interdependence. Here he says a sheet of paper is a cloud. The tree from which the paper came was dependent upon the cloud to make rain for the tree to grow. Other factors were sunshine, soil, the logger who cut the tree, the sustenance of the logger, the paper mill that made the paper, the delivery of the paper to the store that sold it, etc. Each thing has a long history dependent on many factors. So every thing is also other things that are not the thing. Similarly, when we meditate we do not seek to escape from society but to re-enter it with greater understanding. This, he says, is engaged Buddhism. We are dependent on everyone and everything around us. Our meditation is not for ourselves but for everyone.

He mentions that there is practice and non-practice but that we can train ourselves to practice in the non-practicing periods. One method he uses is to recite short “gathas” to himself as reminders. These are like affirmations, aspirations, or simply statements of reminder. They can also be mantras. He tells a story about a woman who endlessly recited “Namo Amitabha Buddha”. She was very frequent and serious about her practice periods. A friend wanted to test her so he called her name loudly just when she was beginning to practice. She ignored him for awhile but finally became annoyed and enraged. “She slammed the door, went out to the gate and said, “Why, why do you behave like that? Why do you call my name hundreds of times like that?” The gentleman smiled at her and said, “I just called your name for ten minutes, and you are so angry. You have been calling the Buddha’s name for ten years. Think how angry he must be by now!” The teaching here is that the quality of practice is more important than the quantity of practice.

In working for peace he notes that one should contemplate not only the bad conditions of the oppressed but also the factors that influenced the oppressors. He tells a few of his experiences being neutral in the Vietnam conflict. Both sides would suspect these monks to be working for the other. Many were killed. He stresses the importance of neutrality and not identifying exclusively with sides and ideologies. Being in touch with both sides in a conflict can be helpful for the situation. I noticed that in most of the political situations mentioned in the book, especially the ones where technology and arms buildups were causing problems (it was the 80’s) he uses “we” rather than “they” to refer to the makers of the problems. I think this is important in many current situations where an “us and them” mentality pervades.

Next he mentions a conflict resolution and reconciliation technique used by monks since the time of the Buddha and adopted in China, India, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. This consists of seven steps and is done in an assembled circle of monks. First is Face-to Face Sitting where the two monks face each other knowing that the assembly expects them to make peace. Second is Remembrance. This involves remembering the details of the story according to the view of each. The third principle is Non-stubbornness. The whole point of the conflict resolution is not really about the outcome but about the reconciliation process. Fourth is Covering Mud with Straw. This refers to making the path (to reconciliation) easier to walk just like covering mud with straw. (I did this just today with straw around the chicken house). This is done by two respected monks, each in favor of one of the monks and in such a way not to offend the other monk. Their views are respected. The mud is the dispute. The straw is the loving-kindness of the Dharma. Next is Voluntary Confession. Here each monk reveals his own shortcomings, usually minor ones. This is a method of de-escalation. Finally there is Decision by Consensus and Accepting the Verdict which are done in a ceremonial way. 

 Hahn notes the excessive frustration, anger, and misunderstandings prevalent in modern protest movements:

“… without being peace, we cannot do anything for peace. If we cannot smile, we cannot help other people smile. If we are not peaceful, then we cannot contribute to the peace movement.”

He notes optimism at the conjunction of Buddhism and so-called Western values. He also points out that Buddhism is altered when it meets with new cultures:

“When Buddhism enters one country, that country always acquires a new form of Buddhism.”  “[it] … must be suitable, appropriate to the psychology and the culture of the society it serves.”

His own order, the Tien Hiep Order, or Order of Interbeing is based on the Zen school of the lineage of Lin Chi from China. Tien means “to be in touch” and Hiep means “the present time”.  He translates this as “interbeing” from a word from the Avatamsaka Sutra.

He lists the 14 precepts of the order. These are a bit unusual as the order developed in Vietnam during a time of deep ideological conflict. The first few precepts are adamant about keeping an open mind and not falling into fixed views. I agree that this is very important for people. Compassionate dialogue is encouraged and keeping in contact with those who are suffering. Simplicity, generosity, letting go of animosity, promoting reconciliation, avoiding harming and killing, constructive use of the body, and working toward justice – are other key values.

He also includes pieces of his poetry here and there in the book. Here is an excerpt I liked:

You and I and everyone are flowing this morning
Into the marvelous stream of oneness.
Small pieces of imagination as we are,
We have come a long way to find ourselves,
And for ourselves in the dark,
The illusion of emancipation.

Great book. Makes sense. Good reminders.

Monday, February 11, 2013

TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information

Book Review: TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information By Erik Davis (Harmony Books 1998, updated 2nd Ed. 2004)

This book was an interesting ride through the realm of “techno-mysticism”, pop culture, and the history of our mythic engagement with technology. It is a thick tome often overly wordy and at times too poetically hip – but it does provide a rather thorough and detailed examination of the topics. He covers quite a lot of ground. Davis seems to jump around quite a bit then near the end of the book he mentions that he did that on purpose to fragment the info like parsed up html code. There are quite a few memorable quotes here – I will try to find a few for this review.

Early in the book he mentions man as the creator (of technologies) – homo faber, and suggests that all culture is techno-culture. He suggests Hermes as the most appropriate deity-symbol of the technology of communication – the main topic of the book. Of course, Hermes is a trickster:

“As I announced in the outset, technology is a trickster. We blame technologies for things that arise from our social structures, and skewed priorities; we expect magic satisfactions from machines that they simply cannot provide; and we remain consistently hoodwinked by their unintended consequences.”

Hermes is a master of stealth and a thief. He relies on his cunning as tricksters do. Davis sees Apollo as a god of pure science but Hermes as a god of technological innovation whose sacred place is the crossroads (likened to the node of a network). Crossroads, village borders, and household doorways were marked with a herm, a rectangular pole with the head of Hermes atop it often accompanied by an erect phallus. Here offerings were left but also stolen as it was considered good luck to steal them. Later it is thought that the herms became like bulletin boards – places where information was passed along – like communication nodes – thus the word trivia comes from “three roads”. The crossroads or border areas were liminal zones and early trade was ambiguous with the lines blurred between gift, magic, barter, and theft. Later as trade became more institutionalized Hermes became “he of the Agora” and he became patron of merchants. Davis also sees the internet as a liminal crossroads where magic is possible. He notes that the trickery and techno savvy of Hermes are the same impulse. Later, in the Hellenistic city of Alexandria, Hermes would combine with the Egyptian Thoth to become ‘the divine engineer’. Apparently, Alexandria was a city of technological achievements. Here even the popular mystery cults infused with esotericism were technologized with gadgets such as animated statues. One such innovating engineer was named Heron. Apparently, the religious and philosophical pluralism of Alexandria was so numerous that people could be overwhelmed with choices in settling down to a portfolio – a bit like today perhaps. Gods were combined and re-tooled in various ways. The hybrid Hermes Trismegistus is thought to be such a hybrid but was considered to be a man rather than a god. This legendary figure was ascribed technological powers and lived on in later Arabian Islamic Alchemy traditions as the originator of the lineage. An Arabian utopian magical tome called the Picatrix examines some of his attributes. In legend, it was the Egyptian Thoth who brought forth the first big technology, the machine of writing.

Socrates and Plato both wrote of this noting the blessing and curse aspects of the technology of writing. Indeed throughout this book we are confronted with the ambivalence of technology with its pros and cons of both improving and degrading life. Two themes that pervade throughout are utopia and its inversion dystopia. Writing and language have often been associated with magic and has been noted as a form of animism as we ascribe recognized symbolic powers to words. Alphabetic writing allowed for cultural changes, greater self-analysis and information transfer, and more detailed trade accounting. It became the most practical code. Plato was strongly influenced by it and in turn strongly influenced civilization through his writings. The Greek alphabet was the first to capture the nuances of vowels as the previous Canaanite/Phoenician versions stuck with consonants. Perhaps it was the growing prominence of the alphabet and written language dialogue that aided the transition from mythological-based metaphysics to philosophical-based metaphysics. Earlier, in stories among the Mesopotamians and Jews the written clay tablet was a fetishized object of magical power. Clay tablets gave way to papyrus and scrolls and eventually the practical codex (used among the early Christian Gnostics) which became the book. The technology of transmutation, an alchemy of the soul leading to gnosis, pervades the Platonic Corpus Hermeticum, a text from the 2nd to 4th century C.E. attributed to Hermes Trismegistus. The later re-introduction of texts like these exposed the new ideas that fueled the Renaissance. Neo-Platonism ruled again for awhile until it was overthrown by the mechanistic view of the universe favored and/or explained by such as Newton, Descartes, and perhaps Galileo. But magic did not disappear. It simply took up new forms to adapt to changing times.

The alchemical fire later became quantifiable energy and as the structure and function of electricity became known it found a new home. The author waxes much about what he calls the “electronic imaginary” exemplified by the synching of external and internal energies. In the 18th and 19th centuries electricity and magic manifested in various ways – animal magnetism, Mesmerism, hypnotism, etc. The experiments of Maxwell and Faraday confirmed the presence of “electromagnetic fields”. This formed a scientific basis for a relationship between matter and spirit, a concern of the so-called Gnostic cosmologies of the ancient Hellenistic Middle and Near East. Madame Blavatsky and the Theosophists embraced this connection and so a marriage of spiritual theory and speculative science was consummated. This continues into modern times in New Age doctrines. Medical theories based on a “vital power” would also proliferate as well as connect ancient doctrines with very similar ideas. Reich’s “orgonne” energy, Chinese “chi”, and Indian “prana” are a few of many examples. The magic of electricity began to show technological result with the telegraph. Now we could send messages over vast distances in a short amount of time. Marshall McLuhan in his book Understanding Media notes that this is the point where our nervous system began to be externalized but is also the advent of the Age of Anxiety. Indeed the author refers to McLuhan many times in the book and his theme of technology as a double-edged sword. The interplay of thoughts of utopia and dread does some to be a feature of technology and its corresponding anxiety. 19th century Spiritualism was connected to concepts of electricity early on and continues today in the form of clubs that investigate ghosts and paranormal activity with electronic devices. Then came the fear of electronic surveillance, electrocution of criminals, electronic weapons, the possibility of electronic communication with extraterrestrials, and more electronic utopia as home electricity, telephones, and radio and electronic music were born. Tesla was an electrical genius who invented many things and envisioned others like a resonant universal energy that has yet to happen. He also contemplated the potential for abuse of such powers.

Next we come to the story of so-called Gnosticism, a mystical mix of Christianity with components of Platonism, Hermeticism, and Judaism. There have been several attempts to connect the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Gnostic texts in 1945 to the end of World War II and the potential destruction of earth via nuclear weapons but I see these as mostly speculative apocalyptic nonsense. World events, esotericism, prophecies, discoveries, and conspiracy theory have long been linked in the speculative mind.

Davis refers to the 20th century as the Mythinformation Age – where was born the recognition of information as power and its subsequent quantification and packaging for sale. In the 1940’s came “information theory”, “an abstract technical analysis of messages and communication.” With its notions of coding, decoding, embedding,  probability, bandwidth, noise, and signal integrity – Information Theory was a “Big Idea” that paved the way to the more efficient and specific detailed signal paths and communication required in the Computer Age. Other Big Ideas like Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory also offer new ways to understand things that may have technological implications. The discovery of DNA and the genetic code in the 1950’s provided further analogy and example of the importance of information in biology. Life processes information.

The Gnostic/Hermetic symbol of the snake swallowing its tail – the Oroboros, is representative of the self-perpetuating cyclicity of nature. It can also represent the feedback loop, a key concept in systems theory and cybernetics. The father of cybernetics, Norbert Weiner, favored process over form, function over structure, as a better engineering model. Thus were blurred the lines between man and machine, between nature and artifice. Cognitive science, AI, complexity theory, and newer functional ideas like the study of networks have built upon the foundation of cybernetics. All of these tend to discover and examine patterns of information. Indeed pattern recognition is a big factor in sensual reality, as it was often necessary for survival. Perhaps there is even a feedback loop between evolving and recognizing pattern. In any case, cybernetics emphasized that both living beings and machines can be analyzed as systems of information flow.

Both Plato and the Gnostics wrote of the demiurge, the creator-god and Gnostic cosmology highlighted his morally indifferent ministers, the archons. These archons later became associated with shadowy figures behind the scenes, especially among conspiracy theorists, UFO cults, and New Age whackos. The Manichaean battle between Light and Dark, Good and Evil, has long been a part of Gnostic thought, and continues in the more paranoid circles. Augustine tried to put such ideas to rest when he declared that all was according to God’s plan and salvation was through God’s grace alone. Incidentally, his revelation came through a bibliomancy, opening a book randomly for divinatory purposes. The Gnostic notion of the Logos, the divine symbol, or Jesus as the great word, certainly suggests the subconscious reverence for the power of language and communication.  

Davis makes an interesting foray into the idea of early America as a place of frontiers to be tamed. He suggests that the American self is a gnostic self and that the new American secular freedoms enshrined in the Constitution and Bill of Rights exalt knowledge and freedom over belief and trust in tradition. The works of Harold Bloom and Peter Lamborn Wilson are mentioned. Early American freemasonry was rampant and very influential. In addition to some crazy and totally off-the-mark ideas about ancient cultures, elitism, and conspiracies, there was a spirit of being free from the fetters of exoteric traditionalism. Masons developed an esotericism emphasizing the divine builder, the engineer, as an archetypal model. Davis and others have suggested that it was perhaps this notion that informed the pioneer spirit of Americans. Opportunity and exploration of the vast geographic wilderness was possible. Struggle, longing, and anxiety were often a part of this questing. Later would come the electronic frontiers culminating in the digital and internet frontiers.

Davis gives a history of the early development of computer networking, bulletin boards, and the early internet. Denizens of the net have long sought complete freedom and autonomy from government meddling. John Perry Barlow was the first to describe the net with William Gibson’s term “cyberspace”. In Barlow’s words:

“Cyberspace consists of transactions, relationships, and thought itself, arrayed like a standing wave in the web of our communications.”

He also referred to it as a “civilization of the mind.” Jungian Gnostic writer Stephen Hoeller sees the ancient Gnostics as spiritual libertarians, at the time seeking freedom from tyranny. Libertarians tend to abhor social engineering. On the fringes of libertarianism are the anarchists. Hakim Bey’s idea of the “Temporary Autonomous Zone” is an anarchist idea where a temporary space-time is set up outside the realm of societal norms, laws, and consumptive models. The internet also has a bit of this quality. Bey disagrees with Hoeller, and thinks that internet and technology enhance the mind-body split since we commune with ideas in cyberspace. William Gibson’s 1984 book – Neuromancer – predicted the development of the internet and some of its psychological aspects. Mark Dery’s book – Escape Velocity – describes late 20th century man as Homo Cyber, with the body becoming extraneous.

Davis explores an L.A. subculture called the Extropians who tout extropy, the opposite of entropy and who seek to circumvent the 2nd law of thermodynamics through technologies such as smart drugs, life-extension strategies, megavitamins, and other cognitive enhancement technologies. They seem to be a more technological and science-oriented type of New Ager without much of the “fluff” but with similar goals. They espouse a philosophy of “transhumanism”, seeking to evolve beyond current limitations. Davis spends several pages exploring the Extropians’ technological utopian fantasies and comparing them to Gnostic and Platonic notions.  Their notions could also be compared to Nietzsche’s uberman. Davis sees most techno-spiritual movements as Promethean. He also gives a sketch of Gurdjieff, considering him very Promethean. He compares and contrasts the more spiritual-oriented Gurdjieffian Work to that of the more materialistic Extropians. Both involve re-programming oneself toward self-realization.

Next he explores early Scientology, which in the beginning was quite technologically oriented. L. Ron Hubbard’s interest in science fiction no doubt shaped the cult. It was only later that the cult became more paranoid and controlling. Scientology was perhaps an early designer cult, with a homemade cosmology. I have always liked such an idea but one needs to keep a sense of humor and be skeptical about the ultimate reality of such things. Concerning technology the question remains – is technology our servant or have we become slaves to technology? I think a bit of both. The advent of hallucinogenic drug use in the midst of a technological society probably really brought things to a head. Drug culture, the human potentials movement, and technology seemed to form a mind-soup of new ways to experience reality. Later, things like biofeedback, brain machines, binaural beats, AI, and virtual reality offered milder psychedelic experiences. Then came the more consumeristic New Age movement with all of its affirmations, optimism, and light.  People like Charles Tart, John Lilly, and Timothy Leary made a study of altered states of consciousness. Davis seems to refer to these modern explorations as the Spiritual Cyborg archetype and cites the work of Gurdjieff, who died in 1949, as a precursor.

The next mutation from psychedelia would be cyberdelia. It even came from some of the same folk working in cahoots with new technologies. Bay Area Grateful Deadheads would network online in the mid-1980’s at a virtual community called the WELL – Whole Earth Lectric Link – founded by Whole Earth Catalog guy Stewart Brand and a friend of Wavy Gravy’s. Hackers may have been precursed in late-night computer labs at MIT among radicalized programmers. Do-it-yourselfers began putting together their own computer components. The late 80’s and early 90’s brought hip digital tech psychedelic mags like Mondo 2000 and eventually Wired (Davis wrote articles for Wired). We were now a technological society empowering and analyzing itself. Anthropologist Stanley Jeyaraja Tambiah in his book – Magic, Science, Religion,, and the Scope of Rationality – saw different orderings of cultural reality. He contrasted two different versions, one based on causality (modern scientific techno-societies) and the other on participation (archaic and oral societies). Davis suggests that the fragmentation of modern media technology is bumping us back into a participatory reality of sorts. Walter Ong’s – Orality and Literacy – apparently came to a similar conclusion as did Marshall McLuhan. The domination of the mass media over our lives by trying to secretly influence our imaginations through such things as subliminal advertising and adoption of various values was a big subject in the 70’s up to about 10 or 15 years ago when more “self-programming” became available through expanded TV network availability, internet, social networks, netflicks, etc. We are now able to self-program a lot more than before. Even so, brand names and corporate identities still wield some power.

The advent of “media tribes” such as hackers, fans of various things, and e-groups have allowed people to band together. This is true of several minority interest groups. He has a section on “technopagans”. Indeed the amount of computer presence of pagan folk seemed well and above the actual amount of people that were really pagans. Davis gives a fairly accurate history of modern paganism that penetrates deeper than the norm with some of the more innovative types that often do not get mentioned. Also noted is the recognition of the power of ritual. He quotes Sam Webster who says that ritual is “the principal technology for programming the human organism.” Davis gives mention to everything from Starwood festival to pagan publications to Crowley and even on to TOPY, Thee Temple of Psychick Youth. Techno-pagans, techno-shamans, and techno-animists have popped up along with each new technology. Phillip K. Dick noted the word similarity of animism and animation. One could even see a version of the spirit world existing in the fantasy realms of film, animation, and computer games.

William Gibson’s 1984 book - Neuromancer offers this quote:

“Cyberspace. A consensual hallucination … A graphic representation of data abstracted from the banks of every computer in the human system… Lines of light ranged in the non space of mind.”

The dazzling initiatory effects of “virtual realities” can be traced back to the Eleusinian Mysteries and the Orphic cults, says Davis. Ritual theatre designed to re-program has been around for quite a while. Gibson ends up favoring the African and Haitian model of the Voodou loas as most representative of cyber forces, likening them to spiritual forces akin to a kind of set of artificial intelligences. He sees Yoruban-style voodoo as a kind of “street religion” that is eminently practical, flexible, and survival oriented.

Next Davis forays into a comparison of Renaissance Hermetic “memory palaces” as ways to classify and store knowledge, or data. They noted that information is power and that memory (or readily handy data storage) is a key to manipulating information and wielding that power. Computer games have often been at the cutting edge of the “killer apps” and Davis gives an excellent history of the development of gaming from the pre-computer fascination with fantasy, sci-fi, and authors like Tolkien to the early D & D, RPGs, text adventures, and early games like Mortal Combat, Zork, and others. He compares the early games to the images and icons of Dante’s Divine Comedy. These visionary allegories can be compared to Neoplatonic concepts as well. Apparently, part of the adventure of these gaming adventures was in the programming itself, in designing the “memory palaces” that became the virtual worlds. The programmer and the hacker become like gods creating worlds. D & D evolved into the MUD, or multi-user dungeon, which allowed multiple players to co-evolve worlds and characters. Characters and avatars could morph into different forms with different qualities perhaps similar to those in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. As I am not a gamer I am only paraphrasing here. I see these connections but I can’t seem to forget that it is all pretend and maybe that ruins it for me. My younger friends and my son seem to love the modern games but I never got into them. Even in the old days when I tried D & D I could not get past that hurdle.

There is a section about our mythological concepts about aliens and of UFO cults. It was Carl Jung who first suggested that flying saucers were an archetypal part of our mythos. Certainly with sci-fi there is a conjunction of technology and fantasy technology with mythical-style thought. The notions of hidden cabals, secret chiefs, men in black, shadow governments, and unseen aliens certainly recall the ideas of the Gnostic archons as hidden architects. I think that people are affected by the images, scenarios, and fictional styles that are presented to them through pop culture. Much like ancient shamanistic societies we see in our imaginations what we are programmed to see by our available culture. Some quasi-conspiracy theorists like Robert Anton Wilson at least kept a sense of humor and favored clever psychology as a way to stimulate the imagination. Most conspiracy theories are really pretty whacko but there are many clever and thought-provoking sci-fi reality scenarios depicted in books, movies, and other media that bring a sense of “wow”. Sci-fi movies and series like Star Trek and others serve to stimulate the imagination. I think this is good for keeping the mind flexible and open. Robert Anton Wilson advocated such an approach as well noting that it is more healthy to dwell at the crossroads (what Davis calls the excluded middle) than to get trapped in “reality tunnels” of narrow-minded beliefs. However, I think that in the case of some of the more ridiculous alien scenarios one can have a mind that is too open!

There is a section about the Heaven’s Gate cult who committed ritual suicide in 1997 at the arrival of the comet Hale-Bopp thinking their newly released souls would catch a ride on the comet to their home in far out space. I have my own story on this. My good friend came to visit and we were looking on the internet for info about the comet. This was the first year we had internet. We found the website of the Heaven’s Gate cult and marveled a while over the oddity of it. This was the night before their suicide. My friend called me the next day to rant about it. Strangely, he seemed to have a sort of respect for them. As it turned out, six years later he would take his own life in a long-planned ritual suicide.

Apocalyptic cults, prophecy followers, and those who put their faith in ground-zero times like Y2K or even the 2012 BS seem to grow like weed patches. Such paranoia seems fed by medias which can now be self-programmed to some extent. Throughout this TechGnosis journey the interplay of the utopian and dystopian extremes of technology appear. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Orwell’s 1984, and new interpretations of the prophecies of Nostradamus all point to a fascination with technological dystopia. These keep an anxiety about technology. More recently, and Davis does not mention this, there is the realization that global warming and climate change caused by the fossil fuels that powered our Industrial Revolution now threaten the planet. 

Davis notes that:

“Communication continues to attract us partly because it carries within it the seeds of communion: of overcoming loneliness and alienation, and of drawing us together in collective bodies based on compassion, intelligence, and mutual respect.”

Davis then goes on to Christianity, to discuss the Christian concept of spreading the “good news” of the doctrine through what others have called the evangelism meme. Advertisers do this as well and both have been successful simply due to making the doctrine or product very available and keeping it in the faces of the many. By simple statistics a certain percentage will succumb and thus the doctrine grows or the product proliferates. TV and radio evangelism populate the American media to its advantage and as a result a massive amount of even educated Americans eschew well-established science for religious dogma. Neil Stephenson, in his 1992 book Snow Crash talks about “Infocalypse” as the tendency of language and information systems to diverge and complexify. Early on it was the story of the “Babel-Infocalypse” when the Adamic tongue became mixed up and multiple and the archaic participatory way of being gave way to the causal and rational way. Authors like Phillip K. Dick, and historians like Michel Foucault, and others went on to sci-fi the past in their works about the development of language, the significance of past events, and hidden mechanisms of control. Apparently, Dick fancied composing his own theologies and novelizing them for our perusal. Perhaps he searched for meaning in composing his own stories, searching for the Gnostic archons in ideas arising from the mind, overall the most sophisticated of machines yet in his stories they often existed in the machines.

Next he examines the ideas of the Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin. His early ideas of planetary consciousness likely influence the various Gaian Mind ideas as well as countless New Agers and techno-utopians. He referred to the collective matrix of culture and communication as the “noosphere” which cloaked the biosphere itself like a skin. As well as foreshadowing Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis his noosphere foreshadowed the World Wide Web. Teilhard’s idea of the “Omega Point”, a supermind that can overcome entropy or a rapturous convergence of mind and matter, is still popular with optimistic New Agers who often talk about expansion of consciousness, raising the vibratory level, or entering a new evolutionary phase. Indeed many of us wonder about and actively and consciously pursue as best we can some evolutionary goals of our species as we see it. Simply aspiring to go beyond our current limitations is one way. It is likely that our cyber habits have changed us in some ways – the Homo cyber idea. MIT Sociologist Sherry Turkle in her book Life on the Screen thinks that our cyber virtual selves are “fragmented, fluid, and always under construction.” Other ideas of online group consciousness use terms like collective intelligence, collective brain, hypercortex, or knowledge space. Also explored are the surveillance aspects of things like reality TV, talk show tribunals, a 90’s online concept called T-Vision where one could zoom into detailed satellite imagery, and other collective mind type medias.

In a chapter called – The Path is a Network – Davis explores the archetype of the network. Indeed, quite recently the study of networks has been yielding some interesting scientific ideas regarding nodes and networks of networks. He gives an analysis of the Mahayana Buddhist idea from the Flower Ornament Sutra of the Net of Indra where in each eye of the net is a jewel, an infinite amount of them, and in each jewel is reflected every other jewel. This is virtually identical to the idea of holography. This is also another way to describe interdependence and interconnectedness of all things as well as the illusory nature of both time and space as quantum physics verifies. Buddhist awakening or enlightenment has been compared to gnosis. Indeed the Sanskrit word for wisdom – Jnana, or Prajna, has the very same Indo-European root as Gnosis. Buddhism is full of techniques or technologies for overcoming delusion. Mindfulness can be compared to Gurdjieffian work to dissolve the “I”, or ego. Davis explores the logic of Liebniz as a similarly holographic idea in his book Monadology where he talks about souls as nodes of perception called monads that contain within them representations of the whole cosmos. This is effectively a network of perception. Others talk of a network of consciousness. Davis examines ideas in several more books: Sadie Plant’s Zeros + Ones about women and technology and Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game a futuristic sci-fi yarn about a monastic society that plays an associative knowledge game where each connection is a node of a great network. Metaphysics becomes Netaphysics. He examines Terrence McKenna’s idea of the interplay between habit and novelty. Davis notes the power of media tech novelty in the 90’s even though in economic terms it burst in the tech bubble, or bubble. He also says:

“One of my goals in TechGnosis was to show how, over and over again, technical innovations in modern communications technology open up a crack in social reality”

The temporary euphoria eventually gets re-filled with business as usual, he says, as the novelty wears off back into old habits to use McKenna’s terminology. The more techno-utopian wave of the 90’s, he says, was converted to a dystopian trough in the aftermath of 9-11 as the old habits of paranoia and control returned with a vengeance. Apocalyptic thought and conspiracy theory strengthened with it.

TechGnosis was a great thought-ride but a long one. Perhaps it would have been better in two volumes.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Magpies, Monkeys, and Morals: What Philosophers Say About Animal Liberation

Book Review: Magpies, Monkeys, and Morals: What Philosophers Say About Animal Liberation - by Angus Taylor (Broadview Press 1999)

This excellent book makes a very good attempt to cover all the arguments for and against animal rights and animal liberation. Topics covered include animal experimentation, sport hunting, meat eating and raising, factory farming, and reconciling animal liberation and environmental ethics. Related topics covered are the ethics of cloning and genetic manipulation of animals.

My own views on the subject are intuitive, practical, and are based on compassion and feasibility. This book is mostly about philosophical views and concerns mainly the moral status of animals. Interestingly, the author notes that only recent philosophers have been concerned (in their writings at least) with the moral status of animals. Modern moral philosophers have done much to encourage animal liberation and activism. Australian philosopher Peter Singer popularized the term ‘animal liberation’ in his 1975 book called Animal Liberation. He compared animal liberation to the women’s liberation of the time period and suggested that it is the next step in our moral evolution. Singer sees unjustifiable discrimination against animals as ‘speciesism’, akin to racism or sexism. This notion has been controversial since animals can’t articulate their needs and have obvious differences from humans. Taylor points out that there are differences in the viewpoints of animal liberationists but they do have some common ground:

“Though advocates of animal liberation differ in their particular viewpoints and in the arguments they advance in support of those viewpoints, they agree that animals must no longer be treated essentially as resources for human use.”

He also notes that the animal liberation movement is a bit different than the animal welfare movement in that it seeks to change our fundamental relationship with animals while the animal welfare movement stresses better treatment of animals within the confines of continuing to view animals as resources for human use.

Key to determining the moral status of animals is defining their human-like qualities such as their degree of sentience, or self-awareness, and their ability to experience pain, fear, and suffering. There is much variation and disagreement in this regard. Animal liberationists consider animals as members of the moral community. Others define the moral community differently, often in terms of moral agents – those who are able to make choices based on an understood moral code, which would exclude animals. Others say the difference in moral agency is one of degree, that humans simply have a greater degree of moral agency than animals. Some liberationists, like Peter Singer, are utilitarians, who do not think in terms of rights or duties of a moral community. In light of this Taylor suggests that a better way to define the moral community would be:

“all those whose interests should receive the same consideration of our similar interests.”

Both the utilitarian view and the rights view tend to see the treatment of animals to be based on their interests. Another view, that of the contractarian, regards morality as an agreement but most often excludes the interests of animals, so that the idea of animal liberation is generally disregarded by them. Bernard Rollin notes that each animal has a telos, or intrinsic nature, that should be respected. This intrinsic nature gives them a place in the overall moral community.

There is a quick overview of traditional religious/ethical views on animal. Famed Christian writers, Saint Augustine (354-430) and Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) reiterated the most popular Christian doctrine that animals were put on earth by God for the use of humans. Francis of Assisi (who was influenced by Sufis incidentally) is an exception to this trend as he noted that esteeming animals is a way of honoring God. Nowadays there are a few Christians that promote animal liberation but most do not. It is the same for Judaism and Islam, though Judaism does forbid causing undue harm to animals beyond human or medical needs. Chinese philosophy (Confucianism and Taoism) generally see humans as a higher form of animal so the difference in moral commitment is one of degree and one is encouraged to avoid causing the suffering of animals unless necessary. Indian thought in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism highly values the idea of non-harming (ahimsa). Buddhism and Jainism are credited with the decline of the previously widespread practice of animal sacrifice in India. Vegetarianism is now quite widespread in India and a significant part of spiritual discipline there. In shamanic and other indigenous societies, humans and animals are bonded parts of nature and their relationship often includes sets of behavioral rules that may include respect, offering thanks, not wasting parts of animals used, and aspiring for a natural balance with the animal realm.

Aristotle mentions a hierarchy of beings from mineral to vegetable to animal to human. The Stoics stressed inclusiveness/belonging among rational beings but did not extend that inclusiveness to animals. Some famous Greeks such as Pythagoras, Empedocles, Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus, and others were vegetarians that felt animals were worthy not to be harmed. Interestingly, Pythagoras and Empedocles considered that animals just might be former humans reincarnated and to kill them would be folly. Porphyry was another that venerated the status of animals. Aristotle, however, considered rationality the specific domain of humans and therefore animals to be inferior and to exist for the use of humans. Aquinas took up this Aristotelian view when he harmonized the teachings of Aristotle with the Church in the 13th century.

Descartes (1596-1650) favored a mechanical view of nature where animals were devoid of consciousness and at the disposal of humans. This view has apparently persisted as just months ago scientists announced that animals have consciousness! Although some people disagreed with him at the time there are still some now who follow in his footsteps claiming that animals do not feel pain and have no consciousness. Such denial to justify exploitation is rather lame in my opinion. Thomas Hobbes and Spinoza held similar views. One detractor was the self-taught philosopher and poet Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673). She considered the specialized types of sensual knowing of animals. Locke and Hume generally followed Descartes’ view, excluding animals from the moral community. Kant also excluded animals but noted that we do have a duties involving animals, but not duties directly to them. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) was the founder of modern utilitarianism. He noticed that much of morality current to his time emphasized the interests of those in power and tended to disregard those not in power. He sought an egalitarian sense of justice and morality based on the egalitarian abilities to suffer among humans (and animals). Since we all feel pain similarly we should all be treated similarly and have similar opportunity to avoid it if possible. He suggested that rights will eventually be extended more to the animal kingdom which was radical for the time. The famed utilitarian John Stuart Mill partially re-erected the barrier between human and animals in regards to duties. The utilitarians as well as Schopenhauer emphasized the commonality of suffering as the basis for the treatment of animals. Schopenhauer was influenced by Hindu and Buddhist thought. I have learned through Buddhist teaching (and common sense reflection) that all beings have a strong tendency to seek to avoid suffering and that is a basis for our commonality. Darwin tied things more to instinct and his theories of genetics. He noted that the difference between humans and non-humans is basically in degree. Though not stated in the book, this idea also occurs in Indian thought in the idea of the three gunas, or modes of material nature, where the hierarchy from mineral to vegetable to animal to human and beyond involves more and more sentience and refined consciousness that is progressively unveiled. Darwin noted examples where animals make tools and display other human-like thought qualities. He considered morality to arise from social instincts. Though Darwin had respect for animals, he could not be called a liberationist. His theories on evolution did, however, provide a new framework for understanding our kinship with animals. The bottom line is that until recently most philosophers have failed to include animals in the moral community even as lesser parts of it.

Regarding the rights of animals the author presents the traditional view that animals cannot have rights and revisionist views that they do. Henry Salt wrote a book in 1892 called – Animal Rights – which concluded that it would be logically inconsistent to ascribe rights (not to suffer) to humans but not to animals. Salt influenced Peter Singer though Singer is a utilitarian and does not think in terms of rights. Tom Regan, in – The Case For Animal Rights – (1982) suggested that all creatures have inherent value, or a life that matters. This may derive from Kant’s notion of humans deserving of respect due to their inherent worth. In any case, having inherent value, suggests that they should be ascribed certain rights. Regan suggests that animals have preferences, or what he calls preference autonomy. Having a life that matters makes them what he calls subjects-of-a-life – who have beliefs and desires, perception, memory, and a sense of the future including their own, feelings of pleasure and pain, and abilities to act in their own welfare and pursue desires and goals. He prescribes these characteristics at a minimum to mammals and possibly more animals. Regan considers the many situations humans are faced with that require choices between one harm and another towards animals and provides principles to determine to most considerate choices in respecting the rights of other creatures. These types of arguments about the best ways to minimize suffering are more prominent in modern discussions about animal liberation. The author provides detailed responses to Regan’s “rights view” from utilitarian, contractarian, and even feminist perspectives. Indeed he provides each of these four ‘versions’ in various manifestations for most arguments in the book. Some feminist philosophers have suggested that our treatment of animals be more emotionally and spiritually rooted as an “ethic of care” rather than a philosophical argument. I can relate to that – seeing the basis for our treatment of animals a bit more intuitively than strictly rational.

Arguments for and against hunting and eating animals follow along the same lines with differences of opinion on whether animals can suffer (duh), whether our killing them has any moral implications for us, and the degree to which we should adopt a reverence for life. Vegans, vegetarians, and those who reduce their meat intake in practice offer a greater reverence for life than those who don’t – generally speaking. Even those who consume meat mindfully and with some remorse and thanks do better than those who casually disregard the life of the animals they consume without thought. The notion that there are people – traditional and modern – so-called rational intelligent people too – who actually think that animals do not feel pain and do not suffer – strikes me and others as patently absurd. Yet such justification views still float about here and there. The argument that I have heard on several occasion typically from Christians is that animals do not have souls.

Some have pointed out that animals often endure more suffering and a more painful death in nature than by the hand of humans. Of course, this is no justification for shortening their lives. Animal welfare laws have worked to reduce the needless suffering brought about by the inhumane practices associated with factory farming prevalent in today’s populated world where demand for meat is high. Some people merely avoid factory farmed animal products which is also commendable in my opinion.

Both Singer and Regan think we have an obligation to be vegetarian but for different reasons. My own opinion is that it should be a choice but I would highly recommend it. The author seems to lean in favor of animal liberation and good treatment for animals but he does present the various arguments without bias.

Sport hunting has been described by some as a spiritual activity. I have even heard it described so. Jose Ortega y Gasset described it this way in his – Meditations on Hunting. He and others feel that it is necessary to kill in order to fully exercise the skills and cunning of hunting that leads to the spiritual experience and that simply stalking animals with a camera is not the same. Others including myself are skeptical. Sure it would be more intense to stalk to kill but seeing this as a necessary human need seems rather ridiculous. The situation with fishing has been described as less troublesome since some consider fish lower on the degree of sentience but this too is quite debatable. Subsistence hunting is probably a different matter since it is not recreational and has a very strong traditional component based much on satisfying hunger and maintaining life. Even so, it is debatable whether (or to what degree) it is necessary these days where such cultures have adopted modern ways. Some have made arguments that “supermarket vegetarians” have caused the death of animals due to farm machinery, loss of habitat, and pesticides. Though this may occur, it also occurs with those that eat meat as well as vegetables. I think there is a difference between directly causing a death by ordering the body product and indirectly through the likely side effects of agriculture.  Livestock raising uses many more resources and land resulting in more habitat loss than agriculture. The few who have justified big game hunting (elk) on these grounds have apparently not considered that few humans could do this before the prey was reduced in numbers significantly. Hunters have also argued that they act as environmentalists providing predation to keep the numbers of prey down. I don’t buy this one as I suspect that increased mating may compensate for that (esp. with deer who are hunted during their mating season) but I am not sure if this is actually the case.

Using and often harming animals in the course of scientific research is another topic of concern. Every year tens of millions of animals are used in such ways and some think that how they are used should be better regulated and harming for questionable benefits should be entirely eliminated. There is considerable debate over what benefits may come about through research where animals are harmed but it is clear to many that there is more harming than benefit. Harmful cosmetics testing and excessive determination of legal dosages for substances are two cases in point. Vivisection is a common practice in research. Anti-vivisection movements began in the late 1800’s. Alfred Russell Wallace, who independently originated the theory of natural selection at the same time as Darwin, believed that vivisection should be abolished as it was often done for trivial reasons and he noticed that it often made experimenters callous and uncaring in their actions. This has been noted and documented with media as well among animal rights activists who have recorded such callousness undercover. Darwin himself was ambivalent to vivisection – seeing it as sometimes useful but often trivial.

Researchers concerned about animal welfare have come up with the three R’s: 1) replacement of animals with alternative methods; 2) reduction in the numbers of animals used – substituting statistical methods; 3) refinement of experiments in order to cause less animal suffering. This is a good trend but unfortunately many researchers are resistant to such mindful concern with animal welfare as they are still influenced by Descartes’ view of animals as machines. I think that overly radical animal rights activists have made the situation worse by overcompensating with property destruction, aggression, and borderline violence. Michael Allen Fox wrote – The Case For Animal Experimentation – with the typical philosophical arguments of animals not being part of the moral community. He noted that their worth has to do with their use to us. Afterwards though (1987) Fox repudiated his statements and changed his views noting that his views were arrogant, complacent, and arbitrary. He said he was influenced by social conditioning and the abstract principles of philosophical argument and that he ignored the influence that feelings and emotion should have in the determination of morality. He now stated that we have an obligation to avoid harm even if the experimentation provides benefits. He now rejects even a costs-benefits approach. Utilitarians like Peter Singer are not quite ready to eliminate a cost-benefits approach as some experimentation may be useful for the greater good of the most sentient beings. There is indeed much skepticism and debate about the actual benefits of animal experimentation. There is also the question whether it is better to do harm than to fail to prevent harm. There are no easy answers. There is the comparison of “definite harms” vs. “possible benefits.”

Another topic in research is genetic engineering and manipulation of animals. While this may have benefits it may also cause undue suffering. A case I can think of is the breeding of domesticated livestock to maximize meat production. This has been done with many animals. Turkeys and pigs come to mind. These animals have been bred and selected for maximum meat production which has also compromised their health and shortened their lifespans. Domesticated turkeys can grow so large that they are not able to walk and often die many years short of wild ones. Some such as Jeremy Rifkin have noted that genetic engineering threatens to devalue living individuals. The issue of transgenic animals – animals whose genetics have been altered by the addition of genetics from other species – also raises some concern. Heart valves from pigs and even a baboon’s heart have been transplanted into humans. Transgenic mice have been used to study diseases. The use of transgenic animals raises the issue of whether we are enslaving them as well. There is variation even among liberationists about the dangers of genetic manipulation. Some manipulation may be beneficial for the animal as well as humans. There is no blanket right or wrong, some argue. Each situation must be weighed individually to determine its potential merits and dangers.

Next we have a comparison and contrast between animal liberationists and environmental ethics. Many arguments and variations are presented. Environmentalists often speak in terms of a systems approach with the overall health of the ecosystem being paramount. This often suggests that keeping up predation of species is good for the ecosystem. The balance of the ecosystem may require the culling of species say some environmentalists. Others suggest a hands-off approach. Some suggest that we should help wild animals and others suggest a hands-off approach to that. I think we have an obligation to help them if we are able – such as taking an animal that has been injured by a car to a wildlife rehabilitation place. Many animals have been rehabilitated in such a way and we have done this multiple times.

Aldo Leopold’s land ethic has influenced environmental philosophy. This is the notion that we should not regard the environment as a matrix of resources to be exploited for our benefit but that we should consider all parts of the environment as members of the biotic community. This may be a nice ideal but the overwhelming most of us still use those resources that are exploited so this cannot be implemented without a certain level of hypocrisy. Even so, Leopold’s notion that the effects of certain actions should be evaluated in terms of their effect on the whole system is sensible and in fact has become the norm in assessing environmental impact. Others give more weight to the individual and suggest a balance between the effects on the individual and the biotic community. J. Baird Callicott elaborated upon Leopold’s view in seeking to reconcile the tension between favoring the individual vs. favoring the whole in terms of social evolution – the group solidarity benefit mentioned by Darwin. Callicott favors traditional and indigenous views of the relationships of humans and the environment. Indeed these are stressed in these cultures. The “way of right relationship” with one’s family members: earth, sky, sun, moon, animals, plants, stones, etc. is an important part of Native American philosophy – as an example. In this way Callicott sought to reconcile the differences in emphasis between animal liberationists and environmentalists while still favoring the environmental approach. Others have accused him and Leopold of “environmental fascism.” Biologist E.O. Wilson notes a long-standing tension between individual selection and group selection among eusocial species such as humans. Anne Warren advocates a compromised approach where the rights of sentient beings trump the importance of non-sentient aspects of the environment while still recognizing their value. Yet she has been criticized for overly emphasizing the rights of humans over animals. Regan on the other extreme favors animal rights over the environmental ethic. Paul Taylor’s view in – Respect For Nature – suggests that all members of an ecosystem have equal value and so deserve our moral consideration. Taylor suggests that conflicts between individuals and the whole need to be prioritized. One priority is the principle of self-defense. Others involve certain conditions overriding others based on circumstances and necessity.

One important question is whether we should intervene in nature or leave it alone. My own answer to this would be that it depends on the circumstances. We are part of nature so intervening in it is part of our nature and so part of overall nature as well. I do not think there are clear blanket answers to every issue – but that each situation requires us to weigh the value of each solution. In this sense philosophy or a set of principles can only be a general guide and not a way to literalize each situation into a “by the book” approach. There are many grey areas that we must tread and sometimes we will fail to do what’s best. Even so, we should strive to do the best we can for the welfare of all of our fellow beings and be ever mindful to not cause needless harm.

In the conclusion, the author notes that there has been a remarkable change among philosophers in recent times to recognize a greater moral status of animals even if there is disagreement about degree. This is perhaps a reason to be optimistic although the same may not be true among the general population as it is among philosophers. I can only hope that we are becoming a kinder and more compassionate people but there is certainly a very long way to go in this regard.