2014: What I Learned from Books

“I cannot remember the books I’ve read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.” -Emerson

After a relatively weak reading year, I had to remind myself that life is more than reading books. Every year, I honestly feel guilty about not reading more, a goal I will never reach. But I remind myself that out of 100 books read, just a handful will stay with me, will shape who I am. Many fade; many forgotten.
Still, I have learned some stuff in 2014:
From The Pol Pot Regime I wanted to find out if Pol Pot was in fact an atheist and a hater of religion. He was. An educated man, a killer, a “kindly” man to some, he wanted to “wipe out religion” and wipe out the monks. Everything That is Bad for You is Good For You argued that pop culture, games, and modern TV is making us smarter, not dumber. I agreed. Nature’s God reinforced my belief that our Founding Fathers did in fact love Jesus in their own way – albeit an unorthodox way, but a real way: the same way I love Jesus. The were Deists, not atheists. Reinventing Liberal Christianity challenged me directly. This book is aimed at liberals like me who call themselves ‘Christian,’ but don’t go to church, don’t like rituals, don’t believe in many of the creeds, etc. This book argues that people like me should return to traditional religion while keeping our liberal mindset. I wish I could find such a church. Dog Whistle Politics was a fascinating look at how politicians use coded racial language to perpetuate racism, win elections, and destroy the middle class. In Keeping the Faith Without Religion, I read about a man trying desperately to keep a faith that had faded. Reading poetry, walking in the woods, and loving people are beautiful things: but is that faith? God in Proof told me the story of Anthony Flew, at one time the most famous atheist philosopher, who eventually became convinced that God “probably exists.” Richard Dawkins, in true arrogant fashion, said this about the aging Flew: “He once was a great philosopher…It’s very sad.” Moral Tribes is a book that will stay with me forever, teaching me that both Kant’s morality (Deontology) and Bentham’s morality (Utilitarianism) are correct. We should use Kant’s morality for people we are close to, and Bentham’s morality for people we are not. I’ve been waiting for this book to come along. With Einstein & Oppenheimer, I learned that Einstein learned detachment from Buddhism and took it to heart, and that selflessness is the center of morality. And that history is shaped by great people (which is a theory of history that I got from Emerson). Shores of Knowledge said that “Theology and science had achieved a mutually enhancing balance in Great Britain when Church of England leaders interpreted Newton’s laws of universal gravitation as proof of a God-ordained orderly system.” The Cure in the Code taught me that, in some ways, drug companies are regulated in a way that is out of touch with current science (which was verified by my father-in-law who makes drugs). The Detroit School Busing Case was a very depressing book on race relations and how truly little we have come in terms of integration. I read The Mind of Jeremy Bentham in search of an atheist hero, and by gosh I think I found one. He was a courageous, forward-thinking, great man who wanted morality to be more rational and just. I also read another book on Bentham that showed how deeply political his ideas were; he was looking for big change, not small stuff. The Human Right to Health reinforced my idea that, although we may disagree on the foundation of rights, we pretty much all agree on the values themselves (in this case, the value of health and the importance of healthcare to live). The Life You Can Save taught me that, although biology has given us barriers when it comes to giving to charity, we need to transcend them. A People’s History of Poverty in America made me disgusted with the various ways we have not helped the poor. The Moral Molecule was another book that will stay with me forever, teaching me that oxyticin is the foundation of empathy and therefore morality, a blend of nature and nurture. 
Happy New Year!
matt
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2014: What I Learned from Books

How I Learned that Racism is Real

The problem with racism is that it’s not a problem. Correction: for many white people it’s not. For various reasons, we never have to think about it, we are rarely confronted with it. Therefore it doesn’t exist. But the other problem with racism is that it does exist. And it’s still tearing our nation apart. Here’s how I became convinced.

this book was my eureka moment

Growing up in a completely white Upper Peninsula, racism was as foreign as black people. We are as diverse as a hockey team.  Yet oddly, even though none of us actually knew a black person, judging by the way we talked, there was plenty of racism going on. The N-word was used frequently and jokingly – old people and young. In high school, black jokes were on the level of ‘yo mamma’ jokes and a favorite pass time. This is called demonizing the Other; hating what you don’t understand. It’s a dangerous form of ‘passive’ racism. Still, by the time I left for college, I didn’t give it much thought. If someone asked me about racism, I may have said that racism was overcome by Martin Luther King or something textbook like that. Correction: I actually did know one black man in Menominee. I actually had hung out with him on several occasions, but partly because he bought us beer. Still, perhaps having this initial connection started everything for me.

In college I took an African American Literature class, perhaps by accident. I read Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston. The scales began to fall off my eyes. I began to experience the world as a black person in history. I became interested in Martin Luther King Jr. I fell in love with his teachings, his writings, his speeches, his life and martyrdom. I listened to the “Mountaintop” speech completely enthralled, emotional, heart pounding. But still, I was studying the past. I was only half way there. I had the historical context, but now I needed to start interpreting current events in the light of past events.

Then, I found myself watching the inauguration of Barack Obama in tears. It takes a lot for me to cry, but the historical, symbolic and real significance of the situation was overwhelming.

What really brought me to the precipice – my eureka moment, the tipping point – was reading the book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. This book is heavily based on facts and statistics, from an author who was skeptical to begin with. The statistics regarding black men and prisons blew my mind. It brought everything together. Other books followed. Racism is institutional, widespread, and debilitating for millions and millions of Americans every single day. It’s no person’s fault and it’s every persons’ fault. The truth had set me free and it didn’t look good.

Now I witness events like Ferguson and Eric Garner and I understand. Racism is a complex thing, but once you understand it, you see it in the big places and in the small places. It’s a disease that has many symptoms. The choking of Eric Garner without consequences is a symptom of a much larger problem. There is no doubt that we have made meaningful progress, but there is more to be done. I’m not going to talk about solutions here, but I will say this: white people and black people (and Muslim people and minorities) need to connect on a massive scale. We need to live together, work together, worship together, share power together. We never integrated.

How I Learned that Racism is Real

Think About Death. It’s Healthy.

Marcus Aurelius, wrote Meditations

Epictetus, the founder of Stoicism, said to “keep death and exile daily before thine eyes” and “it is not death or pain that is to be dreaded, but the fear of pain or death.” Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Philosopher Stoic, picking up where he left off, said “think not disdainfully of death, but look on it with favor; for even death is one of the things that Nature wills.”

Superior athletes practice visualization. They visualize the future in order to perform better when the moment comes. Guess what: that applies to life too.

Occasionally I find myself walking down the street in a somber, contemplative frame of mind. I think about the death of a loved one. What would I say at their funeral? What words would express how they lived and the love they gave to me? I’m filled with a bittersweet joy. Lately I’ve thought about my grandfather, father, and mother dying. I imagine myself at the funeral. I picture all the people there. I consider the emotions. It’s funny how to consider death is to consider and appreciate life. I am left with a peaceful feeling. I could die at anytime, and that’s okay. My grandfather could die at anytime, and that’s okay. I love him just as much now as I will then, and that’s it. What else can be said? To think about death as some horrible, impending doom is simply irrational.

I have always dealt well with tragedy. It’s not because I have no emotions (I  really do). Stoicism embraces controlled emotions. My personality, biology, and probably the size of my amygdala all play a part at how I react to tragedy. But my philosophy and mind set play a large part too. When it comes to tragedy, I have already been there. I have been to the mountaintop. I am ready for it. I am not worried about it. This is the Stoic lifestyle. The Stoics were the perfect blend of self-reliance and faith, of philosophy and religion. They did everything they could to be the best person they could be – and left the rest to God, or the Gods, or Nature. Worry about the things that are in your control, and accept everything else with a graceful disposition.

Your mother will die someday. You will die someday. The only thing to fear is not living. And I think that’s why we are scared of death.

Think About Death. It’s Healthy.

Do Morals Come from the Will of God?

This is an old puzzle that comes from Plato’s dialogue Euthyphro: if something is wrong simply because God says so, then morality sounds a little arbitrary. For example, what if God said murder was good?–would that make it good? (please don’t say yes psycho). On the other hand, if something is good for independent reasons, independent from God’s will, then morality sounds like it’s…well, independent of God, which is presumably bad for religion (so some people think). Thus I’m in a pickle. For God fearing philosophers like me, I want both. I want morality to be connected to God in some way, but not in a way that leaves out tons of people.

Jeremy Bentham, the atheist Utilitarian philosopher, thought that morality rests upon an independent principle “apart” from God so to speak. That independent principle was this: good is maximizing happiness and minimizing pain. That’s it. But he left room for God. He said that if God exists, then God would operate under this principle:

“The dictates of religion would coincide, in all cases, with those of utility, were the Being, who is the object of religion, universally supposed to be as benevolent as he is supposed to be wise and powerful…Unhappily, however, neither of these is the case…there seem to be but few…who are real believers in his benevolence…if they did, they would recognize that the dictates of religion could be neither more nor less than the dictates of utility: not a tittle different” (125).

In other words, God would be the best embodiment of utilitarian morality. However, people would not have to go through God (or the Bible) to get to morality. Anyone with half a brain can figure it out.

Kant, on the other hand, did believe in God, but he too thought that morality must not depend on God’s will or the Bible, but instead on God’s Reason (that is, reason, or rational thinking). Why? Because nobody really knows what God’s will is; people disagree and that causes a lot problems. Morality, Kant says, must be reasonable, accessible to all, and quite simple: only act on those principles which can be universalized to all. Through this principle we get to the Golden Rule – never treat people as a means but as ends-in-themselves – and we get many of the 10 commandments.

My opinion is in line with Kant. I do think that morals “come from God” simply because everything comes from God, by definition. But how do people access morality? That’s the question. Where do we actually get it? What or who is the gatekeeper? Our parents? Yeah sure sometimes. Religion? Yeah, many times. But where does religion get it from? Like Kant, I think Reason (our minds) ought to the be ultimate judge of what’s right and wrong. In the same way that human beings come from evolution and God, morality comes from Reason and God.

Of course empathy is a huge natural component as well. Empathy, when found in a compassionate, rational, and open-minded person – that’s a beautiful thing.

Do Morals Come from the Will of God?