Part Two in the Certain Violence series. Conclusions from last time:
- Man is fallible, in spite of any and all knowledge
- Man’s grasp of knowledge is never static, and never complete
The first difficulty one faces in crafting a response to militant Islamic and other forms of religious or political extremism is that it is very hard to express intolerance for intolerance in ways that do not pollute the argument. It is too easy to trade empty rhetorical blows in blind anger, or worse.
Moral outrage, as we see all around us, is a dangerous passion that can lead to violence, and the death of innocents. When offense is taken at something that violates beliefs or values, we enter into the difficult terrain of deciding which responses may properly follow convictions. When discussion is limited by a priori beliefs, we can find it hard or impossible to agree in principle. This becomes a tense source of contradiction within us when we weigh the lives of innocents against the theories, learned behaviors, and respect for other beliefs that slow our hand in their defense.
Personally, I feel this as a deep agony.
I argue that there are indeed universal laws based on truth. This is nothing new, quite “old hat,” but necessary to build a larger case in this series for ways in which to structure our thinking and future action. As we have seen, these laws require no enforcement by Man, and are impossible to break in any case.
It is also possible, drawing from our rational nature, to posit aspects about domains that are not subject to empirical confirmation, including laws and rules for governing behavior. But the two are quite different, and deserve different forms of recognition.
At this juncture in history, we stand before events that recall past horrors and promise many more. Because of this, because women and children are being wantonly slaughtered without even the remotest justification in reason or recognizable morals, I will also argue in this series that none of us has the luxury of relaxing into soothing arguments of fine merit.
Rather, it is time to connect word, after careful examination, to deed. Inaction in the face of the plight of the weak and defenseless is moral cowardice, can decay into intellectual dalliance given over to shaping self-image, and is always a betrayal of our core understanding from which all else flows.
That each of us, equally, carries an Inner Light.
* * *
Empathy and the Inner Light
It is also true that many scientists greatly dislike discussing things such as “consciousness” or “inner experiences,” just like “truth” in the last series of posts. That’s really only because these are very imprecise and subjective terms for science, which tends to work with building blocks that are shaped precisely so everyone knows what they are talking about and can exchange material. Like lawyers building a case, how they use language and evidence is critical to getting the job done properly.
Philosophers have had great fun with this kind of topic. The improper use of language and the lack of many building blocks in their set has hampered the effort, however. [Could not resist. Unfair, and fun.] So rather than attempt to define inner experience, we have to rely on external behavioral evidence. Thanks to modern methods, it is safe to say we share some mental machinery that works in pretty much the same way in all of us, showing all the same behavioral signs. Also, each professes to be alive and “in there” when asked, so for the sake of ink, let us agree there is “something going on” inside, and in my case, it feels like “me,” and in yours, “you.”
* * *
As a non-believer, I might feel the vibrancy and qualia of my awesome subjective experience are owed solely to material cause, and feel calmly assured that, ahem, no part of quantum field theory shows any possible room for interaction with other realms. But I can’t (and don’t) offer statements about how non-physical realms might work; not my business. In any case, if immaterial, then none of my tools applies (one cannot prove negatives, especially regarding “intangibles”).
But perhaps the best thing one can say about the laws of science is that they need no police to keep order; the truth will out, on its own merit. Anyone, anywhere on Earth, can set about disproving or proving the claims of science, as it is not an endeavor driven by assumptions that cannot be questioned. You don’t need to ask anyone for permission.
As a believer, I might feel that I can associate my mind with a soul, or that there is also a soul in addition. I might subscribe to the idea that the immaterial, being issuant or generative of the material, has ways of exchanging information of its own, unbeknownst to Man. Indeed, there is a logic to claiming the need for Divine Revelation, precisely to bridge this gap.
I am very free to believe my spiritually derived laws are eternal, perfect and universal. But they are not necessarily so. If I travel the world, or even among fellow believers of my faith, I will find a wide range of ideas that differ from mine, some radically, yet all similar in claiming to know the immaterial. It could be the case that my beliefs and the reports or revelations they are based on are indeed completely correct, but I have no facts that can be shown consistently true. They do not fall like a rock without effort, but require human action to manifest, and human interpretation to act on.
At minimum, I must recognize that I cannot use the immaterial to make a material argument, and cannot use a revelatory experience as evidence in the same way I might use a surveillance video in a criminal hearing.
It is inadmissible. There is no handy stone to test for gravity, by each independently to make his or her own conclusions. A description of laws written in stone is not the same thing as a stone in hand. Moral laws carry weight because I believe them; a stone carries its own weight, and could care less about my opinion.
In either case, we can agree that whatever “it” is, subjective experience is the seat of each man and each woman’s existence and Will, hosted in mind or embodied in soul. This Inner Light is sacred for believers and is the closest thing to it for unbelievers, as it is the locus of magnificent and wondrous experience, and where we exercise choice. We do not consider ourselves to be alive, or free, without it.
Respect, at this level, means that we can agree, believers and unbelievers, that we deal with differing realms and methods, and that we cannot use the knowledge from one domain to deny that of the other. It works both ways.
And we should also agree that laws of any provenance are one thing, but Man’s fallibility remains. It would be wonderful if by reading the civil code and practicing a bit we could all become perfect automobile drivers, but so far that does not seem to work. Think of the insurance industry as a statement about you.
* * *
Research shows that when we observe someone who we identify with experiencing pain, the same or very similar neurological responses occur in our brain. That is because we are connected to them via empathy. In fact, many skills are learned and experiences are shared by watching others, during which time a variety of motor, muscle memory and other neurons get involved, in mimicry of the one watched. To experience this, just watch yourself move the next time you follow your favorite player or team in a match.
Self extends outward to other self, identifies with and empathizes, and learns.
In the end, who are you? You are father, brother, son, or mother, sister, daughter. You are yourself and your relations, just like everything else in the universe. Though we are each unique, we are the specific result of common biological and psychological processes, as well as of common inner spiritual workings for those who believe. Holy snowflakes, if you will, simultaneously different and fundamentally same. But how do we, could we, judge the Inner Light?
For others, we are the sum of our behaviors. Since these result from the choices we make, in society it is behavior, the fruit of each tree, that shows our qualities in the way we make those choices. We are not God and we are not mind readers; observed behavior is the only fair grounds for weighing the intent and actions (and not nature) of other men, when and as we must. Since policies can guide and give legitimacy to behavior, these two, behaviors, and the words made into guiding principle to justify them, are fair objects of scrutiny.
* * *
It is interesting to see that empathy lies at the crux of both knowledge sharing and of identifying self with others, the start of moral thinking. Without a theory of mind or soul; that is, the belief and recognition that an Inner Light glows in each, there would be nothing of this to observe; no one bothering to write, and no one reading. No religion, and no choice to speak of, either.
It also may mean that a lack of empathy, if not a medical condition, results from being a bad student with poor teachers, possibly using the wrong material.
Respect of this Inner Light is acknowledgment not only of self, but of other. One cannot be proud of choices made while denying them to others, else exclusive merit and authority is assigned to oneself specially, requiring further and impossible proof. To sustain such an asymmetry is to enter fatal contradiction, and deny the value of one’s own stance. It certainly speaks ill of any uplifting message one is attempting to convey.
Universal laws need no imposition, and preferences and beliefs have no basis for being forced on anyone.
* * *
The fairest yardstick for the objective value to broader society of a spiritual belief proposition about the welfare of Man, I would then sustain, is the degree to which it seeks to maximize the brilliant splendor of the sacred Inner Light of the many, and shrink from extinguishing it for the one. That is a general statement that consensus can shape into particulars, but certainly any source of knowledge inspired by light would not make the world a darker place.
Knowing, as we do, that the suffering of others is the same as our own, that self does not end at the fingertips, but at the edges of the rest of humanity, makes causing suffering a self-evident moral crime, and failing to defend the lives of others a loss we may or may not feel at the time, but will live to regret.
The defense of innocent others, in the end, is the defense of self and the whole society, and so enjoys the same legitimacy.
In fact, empathy explains why many shout, but only few kill. What often stays the hand is the basic morality that comes from seeing ourselves in others, going deeper than formal learned belief, with roots in our very nature as social beings. We cannot help but feel the pain of others, and it requires active effort to ignore, using an inner dialog of rationalization. But even if it is only few who kill, it is what drives screamers and assassins alike that remains suspect: the origin of the rationalizations.
Extinguishing the Inner Light of any man or woman, unless to stop greater harm to more innocent lives, is bad, fatal contradiction, grotesque ignorance about the nature of man, criminal behavior, or just plain sin; your choice. It’s just evil. How shall we channel moral outrage in a civilized manner, and protect the innocent?
* * *
For that is the good news, if there can be any. There is no need to examine beliefs for moderation or lack thereof, no religious logic to unravel, no “Islamic vs un-Islamic” tie to unknot. We have both institutionalized radical policy and resulting behavior, which speak clearly enough. That which legitimizes and rationalizes evil behavior is the target, not fallible Man. But the innocent come first in priority. And we marshal not private revelations that cannot ever be shown beyond doubt, but the facts and nature of life itself to argue in favor of the innocent.
The time for doublespeak has ended; we hear the lament of our children.
* * *
Conclusions from Part Two to take forward:
- Be it mind or soul, the Inner Light is sacred to believers and unbelievers alike
- Fallible men cannot judge the inner lives of others, only choices revealed as behavior
- Enlightened belief will not extinguish the Inner Light (will not sin), rather nurture its growth toward ethical behavior
- Respect applies to those who recognize the logically equal standing of each Inner Light
- Behavior, and policies that enable evil acts, are objects of fair scrutiny
- There is no need to untie any theological knots seeking moderate elements of doctrine
Next in this series: Hubris & Certain Violence
 Same as the Star Trek: NG episode of the same name. Not planned, seemed a good choice.
 Not same as in the movie, but nonetheless another Star Trek reference.