Monthly Archives: September 2014

Confucianism: The Basic Ideas

Confucianism: The Way of the Sages

 (This post is my summary of a chapter in a book I often used in university classes: Twelve Theories of Human Nature, by Stevenson, Haberman, and Wright, Oxford Univ. Press.)

Theory of the Universe – (Humanism or secularism as opposed to the supernatural.) Confucius cared about human beings, the human condition—not metaphysics (grand theories of the universe.) Worry about humans, not gods; worry about life, not death, he said. He emphasized that good government would promote social harmony and the general well-being. [Confucius is primarily a political thinker.]

Still Confucius is somewhat metaphysical when he says that morality is embedded in the universe, and that it is within human beings. Its essence is a concern with the general welfare. [Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Hobbes, and the American Presidents Jefferson, FDR, LBJ, Jimmy Carter and others shared this view. Such concern is obviously out of fashion with large parts of American politics today.] Rulers who rule for their own benefit rather than the general welfare, Confucius claimed, will not be supported by the decree of heaven. [While it is nice to think that the heavens favor the just, it is true hard to believe this is true looking around the world. Perhaps the heavens support selfish leaders? Perhaps nice guys finish last?]

Another metaphysical concept in Confucian thinking is the idea that some things are beyond our control—they are the result of destiny. Confucius talked as if destiny was a design of the heaven’s that was beyond human understanding. [It seems that the “decree of Heaven” refers to the natural order of things, but I’m not totally clear what he means by the heavens except to say that it is not a supernatural concept.] Humans can conform to the decree of heaven if they choose—by promoting the general welfare—but our destiny is beyond our understanding and control. [This is reminiscent of the Stoics.] Humans should follow the decree of heaven by being unconcerned with wealth, status, longevity, etc. [Reminiscent perhaps of the “sermon on the mount.”]

The tao is the way of the sages, essentially the way that previous good rulers followed the decree of heaven and promoted the common good, promoted social cohesion. [This concept is transformed by the Taoists and is the most important concept of Taoism. It famously has multiple meanings. Here are more than 175 translations of the first few lines of Tao Te Ching. This should give one pause when they talk of literal translations.]

Theory of Human Nature – Confucius was optimistic about human potential; he wanted people to be sages or wise persons who instantiate the goodness of the heavens within them. This is accomplished by being benevolent. [When you read this beautiful idea it is hard not to contrast it with all the ugliness that surrounds us.] The result of being moral, essentially benevolent, is joy. [Here he echoes Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle who all thought the moral life was the good life, that the just person was the happy person. I don’t know if they are right about this or not, but I hope they are.] Confucius recognized however that most people are not sages, they are miserable. But why?

Confucius was not clear on why so few people become wise, benevolent sages, but he suggested that it might be that we freely choose not to be good. He also thought that our environment plays a large role in shaping us. [Here we see the tension between freedom and determinism, one of the classic philosophical problems.] Thus we need to be molded so as to achieve moral perfection, molded especially by a culture and a social system conducive to our moral development. [Would Confucius think the US is generally conducive to moral development? China? Russia? Pakistan? What societies best encourage their citizens to being benevolent toward their fellows? What societies best provide for the common good, social harmony, and human flourishing?]

Diagnosis – Social discord is “caused by selfishness and ignorance of the past … Consequently human interaction is marred by strife, rulers govern with attention only to personal gain, common people suffer under unjust burdens, and social behavior in general is determined by egoism and greed.” [Sound familiar?] Why is life so bad? Confucius answers it is bad because of: 1) Profit motive; 2) lack of respect for parents; 3) lying; 4) ignorance of the past; 5) little benevolence.

  • The moral or right thing and profit are opposed; the wise understand justice, the small person understands profit. Most are guided by self-interest, especially in wealth or profit. This leads to immoral results and social disharmony. [Income inequality? Unjust incarceration? Class struggle?]
  • Selfishness motivated by profit also “implies a lack of self-respect for others in society,” including other family members. If one doesn’t act ethically within the family they will spread their discord throughout society. [Essentially they will flush their psychic waste throughout. Think of certain television political pundits, politicians, etc.]
  • So it is better to recognize that actions speak louder than words. If there is no connection between actions and words there is no basis for societal trust. [Truth telling has been found to be a universal moral imperative. Society cannot function without the presumption of truth-telling.]
  • Without knowledge of past sages, people have no moral insight. [Moral education is important.]
  • The most important virtue is benevolence (kindness, charity]. Benevolence is moral perfection. [Christianity, Buddhism, utilitarianism, and other religions and philosophies say the same thing.] Yet Confucius realized this virtue was rare, hence life is filled with strife. [Read the news.]

Students Taking Imperial Exams

Prescription – Confucius prescribes self-discipline for individuals and rulers in order to cure the ills of society. [I wrote about this briefly in a recent blog entry “The World Desperately Needs Better People”: ] In other words society will be better when the people who make it up are better. This approach provides answers to the 5 problems listed above.

    • Do what is right because it is right, not for profit. [Can one do this in our current economic system? And if not, do we live in an economic system that prevents us from being moral? And if this is true, what an indictment of the system this would be.] By struggling to be moral we align ourselves with the decree of heaven, with something like the natural order. We also shield ourselves against disappointment because we care about moral virtue rather than those things we cannot be assured of getting—like fame and fortune. Moral excellence is its own reward, whether we are recognized for it or not. This encourages us to keep working for righteousness in the world even if no one else appreciates it. If we are motivated by what is right, we will find joy in our efforts even if we do not fully succeed. Thus we also accept that destiny plays a role in human life. But moral excellence is within our control and we should struggle to attain it through self-discipline. We should cultivate self, not social recognition, fame or fortune.
    • Cultivating self [being the change you want to see in the world as Gandhi put it] implies you will be a better family member. [Are you struck by the emphasis on the community rather than the individual as is the case in much of Western culture?] Being a good family member reverberates through society. A person who is good to their parents and siblings and children will be good to others as well. Transformation of the self and benevolence begin in the family and spread outward. [Confucius suggests that we should follow the ways of our parents, if they were virtuous. This may sound strange to our individualistic ears, but the idea is that we learn from the experience and virtue of those who have gone before us. To better understand this think of something like Dan Fogelberg’s: “The Leader of the Band.”]

  • Regarding lying, Confucius says we need word and deed to conform, in other words, actions should reflect words. [So don’t say, “I care about you and I will be a good public servant if you really just want money and power.] If we all lie, trust will evaporate. [Think how communication would fall apart if you couldn’t ordinarily assume people were telling the truth. Why ask for the time or directions if people usually lie?] “Words are easy to produce; if a person or government uses them to conceal the truth, then social chaos ensues. Trust is a critical ingredient of all dependable social interaction.”
  • The answer to ignorance of the past is education, study and scholarship. Most important for Confucius is the study of the cultural legacy of our past, for the purpose of revealing how moral perfection might be achieved. [Today, for us in the West, this would mean something like the “Great Books” curriculum. ] Such education is also crucial for good government. Only after a good education should one be allowed to be a leader. [Confucius and China took this very seriously and the result was the Imperial exams as a prerequisite to hold political office. How our own society would benefit if its leaders had to pass some kind of examinations!]
  • Benevolence (kindness, goodwill, charity, compassion, generosity, munificence) is the primary means of moral perfection. For Confucius, the process of becoming benevolent involves 3 elements: a) clinging to benevolence at all times; b) treating others as you would like to be treated and not doing to others what you don’t want done to you; and c) habituating actionaccording to moral rules, which we learn from studying the classics. Benevolence is achieved by acting in accord with the moral rules we learn by studying which is to live according to the way of the heavens.

This goal of attaining self-discipline, self-mastery, or self-perfection takes a lifetime. Benevolence is the outward expression of this internal state, and serves as a model to others who want to be sages. For the sages benevolent action naturally flows from them; it is the expression of an internal perfected state. For the self-disciplined person, their behavior is modeled on the sages, with the goal of becoming sages. [Hence the idea that moral perfection is a process of development.] As Confucius says the master and student may appear similar from the outside, but the master does things naturally and spontaneously in a way that the student does not. In the end moral perfection may be achieved by studying the classics and becoming a sage. If people bettered themselves, society would improve. [However I think Confucius would agree with Spinoza]:

“If the way which I have pointed out as leading to this result seems exceedingly hard, it may nevertheless be discovered. Needs must it be hard, since it is so seldom found. How would it be possible, if salvation were ready to our hand, and could without great labour be found, that it should be by almost all men neglected? But all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.”

Later Developments – But is human nature originally good or evil? Mencius subscribed to the former, while Hsun-tzu to the latter. Mencius tries to refute the view that human nature is neither good nor bad, arguing that humans are inherently good. For Mencius the heart is a gift from the heavens which inherently contains compassion, shame, courtesy, and a sense of morality which will sprout into benevolence, dutifulness, observation of rites, and wisdom. Nonetheless Mencius grants that people are also selfish and the good qualities of the human heart must be cultivated. Thus the right conditions must apply. [[I assume this process of development will come to fruition under conditions like parental love, good education, good society, physical safety, health care, food, clothing, shelter, etc.] Mencius even offers an argument that humans are inherently good: if they saw a child in danger they would instinctively try to help the child. [Of course this argument only works if what Mencius is saying is true.]

Hsun-tzu argued that our interior life is dominated by desires. As these desires are unlimited and resources limited, a natural conflict between people will result. [Eerily reminiscent of Hobbes’ argument that the state of nature is a state of war precisely because the things we want—fame, fortune, etc.—are in short supply.] Our nature thus is generally bad and we must work consciously to be good. [Reminds one of Hepburn’s remark to Bogart in the movie, “The African Queen.” She tells him that our nature is something we should overcome.] Hsun-tzu says that the desire for profit, as well as envy, hatred, and desire are our natural tendencies which lead to strife, violence, crime, and wantonness. Still Hsu-tzu believed that with proper education, training and ritual everyone could become morally excellent. This takes effort and is aided by a good culture.

Despite their disagreements both Mencius and Hsun-tzu agree that the path of sagehood consists of action based on the examples of previous sages. For Hsun-tzu we are naturally warped boards that need to be straightened; for Mencius we are relatively straight boards that can be warped.

Critical discussion

  • Confucianism teaches obedience to superiors, which is good if the heads of family or state are good. If they are not the whole system is undermined. Confucius thus emphasized the moral character of leaders. [As did Plato.]
  • Looking to the past may restrict creativity and originality in the present. Should we be so enamored with past wisdom and the scholars that interpret it? Is morality objective and are those who interpret it impartial?
  • The common people and wisdom seem to be excluded from the Confucian system.
  • The pragmatic, utilitarian, anti-metaphysical nature of Confucianism, which emphasizes social affairs, can be a small, limited world for those who have metaphysical concerns.

Despite these criticisms, neo-Confucianism may be able to be modified “as a positive resource for thinking about ways to overcome the destructive side of modernization that threatens both human communities and the natural world.”


Black Holes and Truth in Science

Theoretical Physics

Two days ago I wrote a post about “the recent discussion that black holes might not exist.” I was careful to use the word “might,” because I knew that preliminary scientific ideas are typically sensationalized in the media. As it turns out this was a classic example. While news reports made this out to be definitive, revolutionary discovery, it was actually no such thing.

As the theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, Assistant Professor for High Energy Physics at The Nordic Institute for Theoretical Physics in Stockholm wrote yesterday:

… the recent papers by Mersini-Houghton and Pfeiffer contribute to a discussion that is decades old, and it is good to see the topic being taken up by the numerical power of today. I am skeptical that their treatment of the negative energy flux is consistent with the expected emission rate during collapse. Their results are surprising and in contradiction with many previously found results. It is thus too early to claim that is has been shown black holes don’t exist.

As I pointed out in my post, many ideas in theoretical physics are at the cutting edge of science and particularly open to revision. It may turn out that black holes don’t exist, but for the moment rational persons should align their view with that of the majority of physicists. And if there is no scientific consensus about the matter, then the rational response for the rest of us is to withhold judgment.

Other Areas of Science

Another area of science prone to sensationalized reporting is the relatively young field of nutrition. We now know many things about nutrition with great certainty, for instance that fruits and vegetables are good for us and that table sugar and trans fats are bad. And of course there is much we don’t yet know.  Still small, preliminary studies about the value of some food are reported as definitive. Then, if the initial results are later discovered to be e incorrect, people often conclude that scientists just change their minds all the time.

Often I have heard people say they don’t listen to scientists because “one day they say the earth is cooling and the next day they say its warming.” Of course scientists have not changed their minds about whether the earth is warming—it is—nor have they changed their minds about the basics of physics, chemistry, and biology. And that’s not because they are stubborn or dogmatic. They haven’t changed their minds because every single day in laboratories around the world quantum, relativity, atomic and evolutionary theories are confirmed over and over again. In fact a Nobel Prize awaits if one could show that these theories were basically mistaken. Radical change in science, despite Thomas Kuhn‘s famous claims to the contrary, are extraordinarily rare.

So the next time you hear that vitamin D will do this or global warming is nonsense remember to take into account the fact that sensationalized reporting is easy and it sells, while scientific investigation is a slow and difficult process.


Let me conclude with a personal example. My brother-in-law is a biochemist and a world-class researcher and authority on lupus.  After nearly 40 years of arduous and painstaking toil he has made significant contributions to medical research. He did this not by praying to Apollo, but by earning a PhD, doing post-doctoral work, taking the bus and/or subway to work, and toiling every day in his laboratory for nearly 40 years in order to tease just a bit of truth out of reality. He did this by the careful employment of the scientific method. Anyone can proclaim truth. Actually searching for it is much, much harder.

My brother-in-law has made a greater contribution to society than all the faith healers, financiers, CEOs, entertainers, political pundits and athletes combined.  I would like to thank him.


The Fear of Death

Last month the American comedian and actor Robin Williams died. A massive outpouring of public grief followed but now, a little more than a month later, it has all but vanished. What then, I wondered, was all that grief about? And for someone we didn’t even really know.

While thinking about this I came across an insightful article on by Peter Finocchiaro. He first considers the idea that much of this grief was not earnest—that it was more about the person expressing the grief. All the twitter and Facebook activity was mostly about one’s favorite films and how much one was grieving. Finocchiaro thinks egotism is part of the explanation for the public outpouring. After all how many of our lives were really changed by a Robin Williams movie? Still Finocchiaro thinks there is more to it. “Why, exactly, are we making it about us?”

He next considers that our concern for celebrities is a manifestation of the psychological phenomenon called “Basking in Reflective Glory.” By associating with celebrities we feel special, and when they die some of that specialness disappears. Thus we cling to them as best we can by telling everyone how much we loved them or their work. Again Finocchiaro thinks this is a part, but not all of the answer.

At the deepest level Finocchiaro believes this grief is about something deeper—it is about our own fear of death. And I think he is right. In this context Finocchiaro reminds us of the main thesis of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker‘s 1973 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, “The Denial of Death.” There Becker argues:

that the refusal to accept our mortality—a fundamental but nearly invisible pathology, baked right into the human condition—is the literal cause of all evil in the world … This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die.

In response, Becker contends, we make heroes of famous people and cling fanatically to the ideas of religion, nationalism, sports teams, alma maters, and other group loyalties. Becker also argues that while deifying our heroes and social structures may ameliorate our existential dread, it also leads to prejudice, inequality, and war—our attraction to celebrities and ideologies is a double-edge sword. But all of this emanates from our desire to transcend death, and this is why we feel grief when kings or presidents or celebrities die—it reminds us of the existential dread we all feel but don’t want to talk about.

Finocchiaro concludes by talking about his own death in an honest and moving way.

Something I don’t like to admit about myself, except in the company of very close and trusted relations, is that over the past few years I have become increasingly obsessed with the prospect of death, and regularly consumed by the terror of it.

As the influence of my parents’ Catholicism has ebbed over time and drifted into the resignation of a mostly unspoken atheism, the gravity of that change has slowly come into focus: Someday I will be dead, and my subjective self lost forever. That same fact holds true for all of us, and eventually for the prospect for any life, anywhere. Over time, the universe will eventually rend itself apart, piece by piece, one final prolonged act of atomic torsion borne out over the course of eons. When all is said and done, we won’t just be gone; any trace of us will as well.


I have stated my own desire to live forever—to experience infinite being, consciousness, and bliss—in many posts and in my most recent book on the meaning of life. As I’ve said many times I believe that death is an ultimate evil and should be optional. Thus we should strive to enhance and preserve human and post-human consciousness. I also agree that the fear of death is the source of much of the evil in the world. I do recognize that this desire for immortality may be narcissistic, and that we do best to overcome the fear of death by realizing that we are not that important and that life will go on without us. We need to allow the walls of our ego to recede as Bertrand Russell taught me long ago. Still death is such a waste of consciousness, and in an ideal world we wouldn’t need to be resigned to our extinction, to nothingness.

I’ll finish with a moving quote by that wonderful African-American novelist James Baldwin. It captures some of the deepest feeling I have about death.

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.[i]

[i] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992).

Black Holes and Political Ignorance

(This article was reprinted as “Black Holes Aren’t Real—Science Sensationalism vs. Science Knowledge” in Humanity+ Magazine, October 1, 2014)

Here are a few books that relate to the topic below:

The Republican War on Science

The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science- and Reality

Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free

Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future

The reaction among some American politicians to the recent news that black holes might not exist again reveals how either morally corrupt or scientifically illiterate they really are. (The story itself was sensationalized and refers to a long-running scientific dispute.) In The New Yorker American Congressional Representative Michelle Bachmann  (R-Minnesota) says this recent news reveals “the danger inherent in listening to scientists, adding “Actually, Dr. Hawking, our biggest blunder as a society was ever listening to people like you … If black holes don’t exist, then other things you scientists have been trying to foist on us probably don’t either, like climate change and evolution.” She concludes: “Fortunately for me, I did not take any science classes in college.” (Big surprise there!) Her views were echoed by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Chairman of the House Science Committee, who said, “Going forward, members of the House Science Committee will do our best to avoid listening to scientists.” (Avoid your physician sir!)1

That such intellectual lightweights take aim at intellectual giants is an egregious violation of any standard of human decency. Those who have never taken a science class or done any serious thinking in their lives have the nerve to criticize those whose abilities and effort led them to the pinnacle of their professions. What kind of world do we live in? How is it the inferior criticize their intellectual superiors, people report what they say, and others listen to them?  Its enough to make you embarrassed to be human.

Needless to say anyone who understood anything about science would know that its conclusions are provisional—open to revision based on further evidence. Science does not accept something simple shepherds believed in the Eastern Mediterranean two thousand years ago, and then never change their minds. Moreover, the scientifically literate recognize that some parts of science, like theoretical cosmology, are more open to revision than basic biology, chemistry or physics. Of course it’s possible that the above politicians aren’t really ignorant but understand some science and just lie for political gain. In that case they are not illiterate, but immoral. In the two examples above I’d bet on their being scientifically illiterate.

But at least these science denying politicians can save money when they get sick, since they won’t go to the medical doctor who utilizes all that science. Ms. Bachmann is welcome to visit her local faith healer or medicine man. She is also welcome to reject aeronautical engineering the next time she is flying. She can calmly inform the pilot to turn off the engine, get her fellow passengers to hold hands and sing “up, up, and away.” We will see how that works. As for me, I’ll trust the science.

This would be all funny if it weren’t so sad. The middle ages and its superstition might return if these (mostly) Republican politicians have their way.

This short video from comedy central last night makes this tragedy painfully obvious. (The most important segment begins at about 3 minutes into the video.) Watch the scientifically illiterate Republican members of Congress juvenile attempts to critique climate science.

1. Andy Borowitz is a satirical comedian/political writer  who does Onion-like fake articles for The New Yorker. The New Yorker article was a parody. Thus none of the quotes from Rep. Smith or Bachman are real. However the disdain for and ignorance of science by many (mostly Republican) politicians is very real. Let us hope the dark ages do not again ascend. They were extraordinarily unpleasant.

My Wife’s 60th Birthday

On September 12th, 1954 a little girl was born in south St. Louis. One little girl born in one hospital, in one city, on one planet, at one precise moment in the vastness of space and time. A miraculous occurrence that made the world better and more beautiful. Simple words to describe what happened when Jane was born–goodness and beauty increased in the world.

But Jane didn’t keep this goodness and beauty to herself—she shared it by loving. Everyone who has ever touched or been touched by Jane has felt the warmth of her love. The circle of her love and concern begins with family but extends to the whole world. If the world was full of her kind, how beautiful it would be. She is a shining star in a dark world, she is incorruptible, she is impossible not to love.

I don’t know if my love for my wife is important in the whole scheme of things. I don’t know if anything is. But I do know that my life is richer and happier and less lonely and more joyful because of her. And I know that all who have truly known her feel the same way. And I know the world needs more like her because love is the only thing that will ever make life good and beautiful. And I know that uniting her soul long ago abolished my separateness; what began as a glance has lasted a lifetime. I was blessed.

Still my words are powerless to express the love I have for her. Maybe I can say it in a song.