Thursday, December 30, 2010

January 21 Topic: Mind/Brain Duality

It is time to pick up one of the topics we've been reading in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (ZAMM) by Robert Pirsig.   There are LOTS to choose from, so let me see if I can find one that can lead into several others. 

One that has been popular with philosophers for generations is the problem that exists between what seems to be a physical world around us and what seems to be a non-physical entity inside us, which is our mind.  The existence of a non-physical but seemingly real thing like a mind (or consciousness, if you prefer) doesn't seem like a problem, except when you try and explain how a non-physical thing interacts with a physical thing like your body.  How does that happen, exactly? 

We have absolute knowledge of our minds, right?  We think, and we know the contents of those thoughts intimately.  We aspire, dream, fear, worry, and have all sorts of innate and internal conversations with ourselves that form our personal space, our personality, and by some accounts, creates the human experience.  How can we translate that sort of experience into a description of what is happening inside our bodies?  Is this just a complex series of chemical reactions?  Does it happen at nerve endings and nerve connections?   Is it related to the proteins in our cells?  What? 

Some have concluded that the essence of our mind is something like a Spirit, or non-physical entity that somehow comes from outside our bodies.  Others have suggested that consciousness is an emergent property of complexity, and that sufficiently complex systems will eventually become conscious.  This is the basis of the experience of Ewa in the movie Avatar, where the planet is "alive" in a way that is above and beyond the simple fact of being host to plants and animals.  The Mother Earth idea writ large, as it were. 

It is hard to escape the idea that each of us represents the entirety of what we are; that all we are is composed of what we can see in the bathroom mirror when we step out of the shower.  How can there be more than our physical bodies?  It is the Identity Theory applied to people:  Bob = Bob.  How can it be that Bob = Bob + Mind?  The Mind part is already implied and included in the idea of Bob. 

Mind/Body dualism.  A perennially puzzling problem.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

America's 4 Gods - Dec 10

The November meeting was quite enjoyable. The topic wasn't really clear to me, but was generally, what is our essential self and where does it come from? We talked about Nature vs Nuture, does our personality change over our lifetimes, how does our personality persist inside our ever changing bodies, and similar topics. With 14 adults attending, and 2 of them 1st timers, it was a good sized group.

We talked briefly about ZAMM, and how reading it is going among the attendees. Several were about half though it. It was mentioned that Upper Case Books has copies in Snohomish. I don't plan on picking up topics until January, so if you are planning to read it over the holidays, you still have plenty of time. I am reading a Kindle version this time.

I mentioned a recent review in the Times concerning America's 4 Gods. The review was fairly short, but the polls used by the authors seem to point pout a pattern of belief that resolves itself into four basic profiles for the concept of God. There are interesting descriptions and examples of how people conceive and interact with their personal God. As we have been dealing with this several times in the recent past I thought this might make for a good topic. I will try and post some facts and topics in this space prior to the meeint on Dec 10.

Please note the date. December is a tough month for meetings as there are lots of things happening. We will go early.

Friday, October 29, 2010

BQ Summary and Future Agenda

The meeting in September left me a little cold.  Let's leave it at that.

A small group met in October without a pre-arranged topic, and chose What is Friendship?  The discussion was lively and long lasting.  The group broke up at 10:30, which long time attendees will recognize as being long past normal.   With 7 people visiting and an overall group size of 10, I considered this to be about perfect.  That, and Gordon brought 2 half-gallons of ice cream to share for dessert!

We chose to re-read (for most of us) Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pursig.  I am about half way through it again, just at the point where they are about to reach Bozeman, where he is talking about Phaedrus in the High Country of the Mind.  This is the part that most people find least interesting.  Classical and Romantic Thinking. Rational justification of ideas.  Locke.  Empiricism and Rationalism.  The futility of the scientific method.  Where do hypotheses come from?  Neitze and the logical positivists.  

This is brain bending stuff and not what I call intuitive at all.  I'm not sure what I can do with this when it comes time for the discussion, so if any of you have ideas I'd love to hear them.  Shortly Pursig shifts into the idea of the Good - What is Good, and all that.  I find that part quite interesting, and I know what to do with it.  Do we just ignore the preamble then, and concentrate on what we can grasp? 

November's gathering will be on the 12th.  It is early to make way for the things that will be happening later in the month.  No topic is planned - we will pick one at the time of the gathering.  ZAMM will not have been finished by many people by then, I don't think, so let's hold off until after the first of the year to make a topic out of it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What is Happiness?

The topic for Sept 24 will be, What is Happiness? What makes you happy? Why does it make you happy? Are there things that make you more happy? Less happy? What are the degrees of happiness, and why would there be different levels? Is the "pursuit of happiness" a right we all share?

What is the opposite of happiness? Sadness? Anger? Disappointment? Frustration? Apathy? Indifference? Is there an opposite?

Come and explore this interesting and seemingly common sense topic. I think you may find that there is more to Happiness than you might think!


Tuesday, September 14, 2010

September 24 - Next Meeting

As the summer winds down and the "regular" schedule starts to fall into place, it is time to add back in into our schedules things like Big Questions. I have selected the evening of Friday, Sept. 24, as the kick-off night for the 2010-11 season.   My travel schedule remains faily full, but this is a night where I think things will work out.  I will be in Utah during the week, but I will probably have a topic in mind by the time I show up for the BQ session.  In the meantime, feel free to offer suggestions for quesitons in the comment area below.

Sessions are planned for the remainder of the year.  Currently the dates are:
October 15
November 12
December 10

Pot-luck dinner starts at 6:30, with discussions at 8:00.  We will wind up at 9:30 to 10:00.  There will be one big group.  If you need directions to the house, call the EUUF Office or send me an email.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Summer Break

The meeting on June 18 was a very good discussion, and I think people enjoyed themselves talking about God, god, or the Ultimate Force. We didn't have enough in the way of main course things for the pot luck, but that's what the Luck part is all about!

As for July and August, things at my house will be rather busy this summer. I have to call off the monthly meetings, I'm afraid. There is that much going on in my life, and the life of my family, that we will have to wait until September (do I hear a song in the background?).

Keep an eye on this spot for an announcement in August for the meeting in September, and if you have an idea for a topic, please let me know!


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Next BQ - June 18

Pot luck dinner starts at 6:30 pm at the Smith house. Discussion starts at 8:00 and runs to about 10. Kids are welcome (if they can generally look after themselves - we have space for them). Call if you need directions. You know the number - or look it up in the directory!

Sadly, this blog is public, and I want this to stay just between us...
In a recent conversation with a good friend, the question of the existence of God came up. As a person with a stong belief in this area I welcomed the exchange, and suggested that the terrain of belief could be laid out like a line with three zones: to the right were the believers in God, to the left were the unbelievers, and in the middle were the fence-sitters. Diests, athiests, and agnostics, plain and simple, in my view. My friend disagreed, and now we were off into a proper philosophical discussion!

This probably would not have been a noteworthy discussion but for what appeared to be to me a strange assertion by my friend: he listed himself as an agnostic, but he believed in God. "That is a contradiction!", I claimed. "Not so," said he, because of the way he defined what God is, or what God might or should be. God as a father is not what he had in mind, and god as a natural force wasn't it either. Something else, he said, but what that something was, he didn't know.

"Well," says I, "a God that can't kick ass is not a God worth having!", in my usual disarming and charming way. But this gets me thinking, If the God of Acquinas, who is the God of Divine Providence, who directs everything in the world, who is all knowing, all powerful, and everywhere, is surely a God who could kick ass if he wanted to! But what of the God as clockmaker idea, where God sets the world into motion and then lets people have wills and choice, and we make of the world the mess that it is. It that a concept of God that makes sense in believing in? I'm not so sure.

So I decided to revisit the idea of God one more time, and lay out the question like this: What is God? Please come with some sort of definition in mind, where your idea of God can address things like limits of power, degrees of caring for mankind and you in particular, willingness to step in on your behalf to show his/her care for you, and so forth.

There are many sorts of Gods in the world, some more powerful and some less so. Panthiesm parcels out power to many. Monothiesm aggregates it into one. Vengful, angry Gods are to be avoided. Loving, mothering Gods look out for living things. Where does your God weigh in on the issues of the world and life, and especially, your life?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

May BQ was a bit Different

First, let me apologize for the 2-parted nature of the meeting last time. I didn't realize what I was getting into until it was a bit too late. Out of deference to the speaker the meeting was co-opted for a time, but was eventually brought back into control after 9:00.

In the second part people told me clearly that they want to get back to the classic Questions of Pholosophy that have been the hallmark of BQ since its inception. This I will gladly do. I promised to resurrect the quesitons we used to deal with, even it means re-doing a Question or two from time to time. Old topics still yield new insights, it seems. Fine, we will do this.

I will comb my old texts for a new topic. Check these pages for the new posting in time for the June 18 meeting date.


Friday, May 7, 2010

Is/Ought - and the Next BQ

     The only possible dates in May for a BQ Meeting would be 5/14 and 5/28. Both are open for me at the moment, so here goes. Let's meet next Friday, 5/14. Is that a date?
     As for a topic, I'm not so sure. I've been studying the Philosophy of Science lately, and although I like the subject quite a lot, the recent lectures have fallen into that area of thought we call logic, and it can be deadly dull. While the subject interests me greatly, the idea of trying to make a BQ session out of the logic of language, talking about subject-predicate intentionality, gives me more than pause.
     The other general philosophical question is one that goes like this: science is an activity whose purpose is to figure out what things are, fundamentally. It is an activity that seeks to find out what the world is. Religion is an activity that seeks to show us how things ought to be. What ought we do in a certain situation? What ought a thing be made up of, if this is a perfect world? This sets up an Is/Ought Dichotomy that troubles philosophers, but again, I don't think it has enough practical "handles" on it to make an interesting discussion for our next meeting.
     I'll tell you what. I'll keep thinking about this, and let you know in time for the meeting next Friday night. How about that?
     Dr. Chips

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Problem with Evil

The topic for the next BQ should go something along these lines:

If God created the world, then he would have created the Best of All Possible Worlds (BAPW). He would do this because, being God, he would be All Powerful, All Knowledgeable, and All Good. To be less than these would be to be less than a God, and certainly less than the God that could create the world. Thinkers in the early 1700's reasoned that if God did create the world as the BAPW, then the world we have today must behave and contain exactly what God intended. The apparent existence of what we think of as Evil really boils down to our own innate inability to understand God's Plan. God's definition, as being All Good, necessitates that He is in Control, and He is acting in our best interest.

Aquinas talked about Particular Providence, where he said something like, "Not a blade of grass grows that God does not will it." In times of great natural disasters it is hard for most people to see the Good in widespread and indiscriminant destruction, death, and suffering (Haiti and Chile both come immediately to mind). On a personal level we can sense the sadness, depression, loss, and upset in our own lives as lacking a feeling that the world is working in our own best interests. God doesn’t seem to be taking an active hand in directing the world to make sure this a BAPW for us, individually! Shit happens all too often, and for no reason!

So, what is Evil? Why do bad things happen to good people?

Sunday, March 14, 2010

April 16 for Next BQ!

This is a Save the Date notice: the next installment of BQ will be on Friday, April 16, the day after Tax Day.

My Comments and Review of the Last Meeting

First, I encourage anyone who might want to share their feelings about the last meeting to make a comment below. It is easy - just click on the Comment tab and add your comments inside the box. Everyone will be able to see what you have to say, but hey, that's the whole point of blogging, right? I think you can use a pseudonym if you like, to protect your Secret Identity (as Batman does).

My review? First, the general mood was a happy one. People missed the gathering of Big Questions and they were happy to be back. The diner format was the same as always, and that made things seem familiar. We had 20 attendees, of which 2 were first-timers.

I felt I was a bit heavy-handed at the very first, to get people to settle and start the meeting. One by-product of familiarity is nosiness, and may have stomped a bit hard at the start to get everyone to be quiet. I offered a short explanation about why BQ was suspended for the past 10 months, more or less, and I went over the basic ground rules of BQ for the newbies. We did a quick check-in, and then the new format started.

I asked the attendees if they could suggest Socratic “What is…” questions for discussion. I had 3 responses. What is the afterlife? What is God’s purpose for existence? What is faith? The second topic was suggested using a fairly long explanation, and when I tried to summarize it I may not have captured the essence of the intent of the person suggesting the topic. If I did miss it, I apologize. You have to help me my stating the question in the succinct Socratic form. Long, winding introductions can be hard for me to interpret.

I want BQ to be more in depth than it has been in the past, and I feel that the large group approach inhibits in depth discussions. I try and get everyone to participate, and often feel that a comment thread is lost when people have to wait for 5 people to speak before them about a particular comment or topic. Keeping the groups small seems to be the best way to get to this level of depth, I like to think of this as depth, rather than breadth.

I suggested that people interested in the three topics assort themselves into one of 3 locations in my house. The Afterlife people could be in the kitchen. The God’s Purpose people could be in the living room (with the pellet stove). And the Faith people could be in the family room (the normal meeting area, for those of you who know the format). To my surprise there were no takers for the God’s Purpose question (maybe my paraphrasing didn’t capture the original intent, as even the person suggesting it didn’t want to meet in that part!), and the group split about 50:50 between the other two topics. I stuck with the Faith group, as I didn’t feel I had much to add to an Afterlife discussion.

The Trouble: One of our members is very hard of hearing. To assist this person, people were asked to speak up. In my house where there is essentially open space between the living areas, sound travels quite well. The Afterlife people found the Faith discussion (where the hearing impaired person was participating) impinged on their discussion, so they moved to the Family Room. Good solution! Once that move was made, however, it appeared that the Afterlife discussion ran its course and the group disbanded at about 9:15. The Faith group continued on until about 9:35 or so, and a lingering conversation finally ended at 9:45 or 9:50.

A couple of things popped up that need to be mentioned.

One discussion topic that was mentioned had to do with the current debate in Washington DC concerning the health care bill working its way through congress. While this is a great topic, and one certainly worthy of discussing, this is not what Big Questions is all about. BQ is for talking about Big Questions, not current events. There are other outlets for current events, and I encourage people to attend these other venues.

The process of letting attendees self-assort into topics should work. I think we need to be open minded about how this can happen. I can even see a situation where people can participate in one discussion for a while, and then shift over to the other topic and contribute. Why not?

The problem is one of facilitation. I can only be in one place at a time (for the moment!), and so I will have to pick one topic to attend. If I set a sort of target limit of 10 people per discussion group, then we are going to need people to step forward and act in the facilitation role. There are plenty of qualified attendees who can do this. The rest of us have to give them the chance to make this work. If you suggest a topic, for example, you need to be ready to lead the discussion! Why not? I am glad to lead (which often means keeping track of the order in which people raise their hands!), or to rein in a discussion thread that is way off topic. So should any one who stands in as a facilitator.

So, that is how it went according to me. It wasn’t flawless, but I am willing to go at it again. Let’s try again in April. BTW, I depart the next day for a week’s trip to Melbourne, Australia, to talk about wood pellets in the global marketplace. Philosophy to Pellets, and Northern to Southern Hemispheres, in essentially 1 day’s travel. Maybe my brain will crack!


Saturday, February 27, 2010

March 12th - BQ Again!

I'm spreading the word that Big Questions will start again on March 12th, 2010. The program will be the usual 6:30 pm start time for a pot luck dinner, with a guided discussion beginning at 8:00.

For the pot luck, please bring enough for several. It is truly a pot luck so salads, main dishes, bread, and desserts are all welcome. Dishes and silverware are provided, as are most serving utensils. If you need to heat up your offering, an oven and microwave will be available.

The Greeks enjoyed a libation during discussions concerning philosophy, and so do members of our group. If you would like, red and white wines are both welcome. Soft drinks will be provided.

I am hoping for an influx of new attendees, so will likely recycle one of our tried and true topics. They always seem to do well, and generate some very interesting discussions. Perhaps we can pick from among several that have been fun to do in the past.

If the group is large we will break into smaller groups of 8-10. I feel this is very important for discussions, and has been a point of some difficulty in the past. Trying to get as many as 30 people into a singe discussion has posed significant problems. Smaller groups mean more intimate connections. After all, that's what we want.

If you want to read up on this group, I would recommend reading Christopher Phillip's Socrates Cafe. While I find this to be a bit stylized, it does set the right tone for our meeting. I am certainly not the Socratic scholar Phillip's portrays himself as being, I will do my best.

If you need directions or additional info, please give me a call.

Desmond 360 348-2220

Monday, February 15, 2010

Let's Get Started...

I get a lot of feedback about not doing Big Questions anymore. People miss it, and I miss it. People tell me they miss getting together, so I guess I need to ratchet it up a notch and restart the process again.

The customary time was the 3rd Friday of the month. That would land on March 19, which is the weekend of the Men's Retreat to Port Townsend, and the Women's Book Club Trip to Walla Walla. Not a good time. How about the previous Friday, March 12? I know that puts it 1 week after the Lord's Hill group's meeting, but that is the best time for me. Please look over your calendars and let me know if we can make that work.

Keep an eye peeled on this Blog for a discussion of the new format I would like to try out. I want there to be smaller groups, more intimate discussions, and hopefully more focused discussions. I can't be in two places at the same time (yet), so we will have to work out some sort of co-facilitator function that will need to be filled. If we have 2 groups, we will need at least one other facilitator. Maybe a group can nominate their own? Maybe not.

I will also need to identify a topic for this first re-encounter. Again, the Blog format should serve us well for this. I will issue another Post with this information.


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Welcome to the New Big Questions Site

After a stumbling attempt to create a new website, I am hopeful that this will prove to actually work, and deliver the content I intend. So far my desires to create something useful and wonderful, and the reality of the complexity of the internet have been working in opposite directions!

I have been missing the opportunity to get together with my philosophically-oriented friends and discuss the actual content of the compelling BIG Questions I love so much. I continue to read the sorts of texts that result in lots of questions, and I have been keeping a mental list. People love to ask about the sorts of questions I ask, and I have a ready supply to answer. However, after 10 years of more-or-less continuous monthly meetings, and now a half year's hiatus, I am ready to start in some new directions, with a smaller group, and hopefully more directed and focused discussions.

If you know of any way to help me create a list in this crazy new information medium, please leave me a note and let me know. I would ask that if you are interested in being invited to a BQ session, leave your name on this list thing we will create. I expect the format to be mostly like before, but with smaller groups (8 people max, plus Juruf and me) Judy and I will step forward and offer to prepare the main course dish for the pot luck part of the dinner, and guests can bring salads, desserts, condiments, and of course, wine.

I have been recently studying the Ethics of Aristotle, as an example. His Ethics is quite interesting, and full of ideas we might explore. I am currently studying the role of the Vikings in forming the political and social structure of Europe in the 7th - 11th centuries, and that is very interesting (more so than I had expected!). Having joined a Swedish company, it helps me understand a lot about the mindset behind what I experience from my co-workers. That, and learning that the Normans of western France were actually Vikings that decided to settle there, and also true for many parts of England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, and so forth, makes for a different view of the surviving states of Europe. There is somewhat of a melting pot there, stretching back much further than you might expect, and involving Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes from 1,200 years ago!

Anyway, I have a lot on my mind that we might find a way to work into an interesting discussion, and I hope to find a way to make this happen.