Personal conception of God

The concept of “God” as I understand this has very little to do with what Abrahamic religions have to say on the matter. Religions are mythologies, historical tales and explanation systems, and I appreciate them for whatever value they can offer as such.

In reply to my video response on atheism being dumb, someone mentioned gnostic atheists and agnostic theists and I had to go look that shit up. Still don’t care much about breaking it down to that level, but apparently it’s worth noting that yes, we humans are able to clearly realize that what’s written in the Bible or Qur’an isn’t to be taken literally, at least not in this day and age when we’re able to know better. To do so requires relying on magical thinking that defies natural law. But acknowledging that doesn’t completely demolish all value religions contain, nor does it imply that because the Christian myth of that which we call “God” is patently false that it logically follows that all possible ways of perceiving “God” must be false as well.

This word “God” has everybody hung up on either trying to defend it or to destroy it, and personally I try to stay outside of all of that these days. “God” is a word intended to point at something beyond human comprehension, so arguing over whose understanding is most accurate seems pretty pointless. For some people, the concept of “God” involves what may be described as a force of nature, not some entity in the sky that determines the direction of our lives or answers prayers or sends people to heaven or hell. I happen to agree that the biblical narrative is a fairy tale notion of “God” that does unfortunately little to advance our understanding of this ‘phenomenon’ (for lack of a better word) for people today.

People ask why folks even need a “God” to believe in, and I think that’s part of the puzzle right there. Why have religions been an important part of human history for as far back as we can study our species? Is this merely a feature of humanity to where we’re searching to infuse our lives with meaning, or is this humanity’s attempt to comprehend and make sense of a larger natural order that we seem able to experience on some invisible level, yet can’t prove or explain its existence?

In a nutshell, for me this is about a natural order of sorts, having something to do with consciousness, but I haven’t the foggiest clue how to explain to others my own exploration beyond that, just as I doubt anyone else is able to. We each make sense of living in our own unique ways, this including any and all conceptions of “God” or any other belief systems (including atheism and agnosticism). It doesn’t appear possible for any two of us to truly and completely share in our understandings, no matter how close our views may seem, because we cannot see into one another’s minds or experience living behind one another’s lenses.

Even when someone refers to themselves as atheist, that doesn’t tell you their whole story necessarily either. Because someone embraces a label doesn’t allow us to see how he or she has evolved in his or her thinking over time, nor how they may continue evolving (or devolve perhaps) in their understanding as time moves on. This is one of those matters that calls out from the center of our individuality, and there will never come a time when an “objective truth” can be said to exist here. The concept of “God” is just too big to be caged like that. Why do we feel the need to cage and label anything and everything anyway?

People’s quests for certainty is a big reason why I tend to keep my ‘spiritual’ ponderings restricted to interactions with close friends and family, because being cornered and then demanded to explain and defend the merits of one’s own rationale for believing as they do frankly gets old and isn’t particularly fruitful in this instance. If some folks want to take parts of the Bible literally, I suppose that’s their prerogative, and the only time it comes to bother me is if they expect me to believe and behave as their beliefs tell them they should. The situation is made all the more complex since some are hell-bent on forcing the rest to bow down and live according to their expressed beliefs, which is bullshit whether they’re religious or anti-religious or something else in outfield.

I would be happy if we could suspend the fighting for a spell and turn our attention to learning about religions of old (starting way back before the Big Abrahamic 3) and delve into what morals and teachings they imparted, taking into consideration the historical and cultural context to the best of our abilities. Then perhaps it will become clearer to some why religious narratives were important and why a new narrative of some kind is still needed today. Religions started off as narratives, but the narratives going forward need not be like any that came before. We can get beyond religions, this I do believe, in reference to the inflexible group-think exerting too much control over people. We can choose to journey beyond untenable limitations and explore for ourselves, and there’s no reason any new narratives that come into creation can’t allow that to be so.

It’s a tricky topic to speak on when so many people have a set way they want to look at life and aren’t too open to how others see things. For me, it all ties together, from the social realm to moral and philosophical questions; from studying the physical realm, space and time to all forms of life (sentient or otherwise); from individualism to the wider collective(s); from mathematics to language and poetry; from power to play; from love to sexual exploration — all factor into my understanding of that which I’ve come to think of as “God,” yet “God” isn’t caged by any of that. “God” is not an it or a thing or anything resembling a person. That’s my take on it, and I doubt that’s cleared up much to state this. Oh well.

There’s a feeling associated with my understanding of “God” and I can sense this in others at times, whether they be religious or spiritual or not. The way I say it is something “speaks to my soul,” and often enough it reaches me through music. Hence the gospel songs I post and share, plus plenty of songs from other genres. Music is like my church, and through listening and letting its messages and melodies move me I am brought to a feeling of connectedness on some level with others, with the wider human experiment in living and its melodrama and our striving to reach beyond where we stand in a given moment.

There’s no way to be clear on this subject, just no way at all. It truly speaks to a subjective experience in terms of how one relates with this concept and how far we decide (or are able) to follow it. I get to feeling like talk of this nature is deemed as pure crazy by some, but that relates back to us not being able to see life through one another’s eyes, leaving us forced to rely on inadequate words to point instead, and lord knows words are always up for individual interpretation. What I mean by “God” will never be what you or she or he means by “God,” at least not in any definite sense capable of being objectively understood and proven.

So around and around we go with our words and claims and arguments and so forth. We humans truly are an odd and interesting bunch.

This is a complex inquiry within each of our own selves, that is if we’re aiming to remain open to it. Then it’s made all the more complex when a bunch of us want to get together and argue over what can or can’t be or what’s idiotic to believe. What does it even mean to “believe”? I understand this to be an inquiry never headed to becoming a rigid set of beliefs cast in stone, deemed complete and no longer changeable. At least for me. Science proved to be a game-changer for humanity because its methodology and findings dramatically altered and enhanced inquiry of this nature, but scientific inquiry hasn’t done away with ‘spiritual’ inquiry, nor has scientific exploration solved (and perhaps it cannot solve) what all is being asked here. Questions remain open, and I guess my experiences with atheists have given me the impression that a number of them jumped off the train at that stage in their journeys and decided that was far enough, as if that’s all they needed or were interested in knowing. That’s fine for them, I guess, until they start dismissing people with differing views as ignorant fools living back in the Stone Age of intellectual discourse. What’s folly to me is assuming one can know everything worth knowing, and that’s it, case closed, turn the page. How is that not dogmatic thinking in its own right?

Isn’t it about striving to become better, to grow? Guess it depends on how one perceives so-called “objective reality.”

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[Update Sept. 29th, 2014: edited for typos and greater clarity.]

Divvying everything up

Tonight I’m thinking about all this either/or, black/white, this/that talk that’s become the norm in public discussions. Everything’s reduced down to a debate, and so many seem hell-bent on proving their “opponents” wrong or incompetent. People seem to be running around with their dukes up, spoiling for some sort of hostile confrontation that serves as an opportunity to vent their frustrations.

Often I’m reminded of the “two minutes hate” in George Orwell’s book Nineteen Eighty-Four, imagining people gnashing their teeth behind computer screens.  lol  Sad but true. So many reasons to diss and “hate”: racial clashes, political bickering, the sexes going to battle, warring ideologies and competing economic theories, religions vs. anti-religionists, etc. Lots of bullshit keeping people distracted.

But even if this bullshit is sown among us common folk from on-high, it’s still ultimately our responsibility to face and handle it. Nobody else can do this for us, so the responsibility must lie with us, right? And that’s where the issue gets really sticky, because, much as I tend to get pretty dismissive about knee-jerk labeling of one another, underneath it all there are competing philosophies that do deserve our attention. It’s a matter of struggling to figure out where the root of so much of this lies. Where’s the ultimate source of contention? Likely there is more more than one worth considering.

One important way it does boil down is to competing ideas on centralization vs. decentralization of power. Which of those do the currently powerful seek to support? Decidedly, centralization of power. Which of those do those aiming to become powerful support? They may pay lip service to decentralization in so far as it improves their chances of seizing power, at which point they revert to supporting the centralization of power. Why? Because these types of people aim for a disproportionate amount of power, and it’s not uncommon. Part of the human condition so far as I can tell. Some take it further than others, especially those lacking empathy or desire for meaningful connectedness with other humans.  Psychopathy (or sociopathy — are we still using the terms interchangeably?) is imitated by disenchanted people who’ve been peddled nihilistic fantasies.

It’s an effective strategy, but what’s particularly interesting to me here is that while colluding interests obviously help bring this about, plenty of us unwittingly perpetuate the problems ourselves. I’ve been guilty in the past and may still be guilty in some ways now (forever fallible).  Lots of people support the status quo through what they do to earn a living — hell of a conundrum that can be difficult to avoid. Plenty of us mean well but then get caught up in ideological bias without realizing it. Takes time to figure things out, including our own thought processes. Biases are a part of life, threads woven into the fabric of our individual subjective living experience. No two lives can be identical, and the uniqueness this grants us can feel like a double-edged sword at times. A sense of alienation accompanies this relatively new marvel of individuality taken to new heights.

It helps to put it in historical perspective.  The latest major rise of individualism came about during the Enlightenment Era, heralded as a brand-new way for humans to experience living, no longer mentally or materially shackled to familial clans as had been the case up through most our species’ history. Individualism as Western people experience it is truly revolutionary, unprecedented. But what allowed this to be so? What else occurred alongside this psychological leap within human beings? Economic and technological advancements ushered in new habitats and lifestyles, opening up our choices in terms of what to buy and where and how to live. People now are given the option to isolate ourselves, to live alone, to commute alone, in some cases even to work alone,  and now (thanks to the internet) to shop alone. We can choose to learn as much as we are able alone. Porn and sexual novelties make it easier to enjoy sexual pleasure alone. Many frequently dine alone. There was a time when this sort of thing spelled disaster for unlucky members of our species who found themselves abandoned or excommunicated, because so much of living involved socializing and individuals’ needs were met through the concerted efforts of clansmembers. No one person could manage it all on his or her own.

This shift cannot be overrated for its significance in impacting human psychology, which is something we continue struggling with adjusting to. Community had always mattered, and now we appear to be witnessing its dissolution, replaced by collections of people referring to themselves as communities despite members remaining unfamiliar and distant with one another. That’s a big change. Instead of depending on one another directly, we look toward government and agencies and businesses to supply what we need, and this is very often decided through competitive and coercive rather than cooperative action.

On a side-note, I’m reminded of the scene in the movie “Network” where the newscaster is talking about people living with anxiety, retreating to their homes, clinging to their radios and toasters and begging to be left alone.

Can’t speak for the rest of you, but I’m mad as hell too. It’s a natural reaction to a society out of wack. Part of the problem is just that so much change has occurred so rapidly that we’re made disoriented, especially now as each decade brings a plethora of new shit to get acquainted with. Easy to be dazzled and distracted in today’s world. Difficult to discern effective courses of action from wastes of time, particularly when it comes to waging legal battles through the largely defunct ‘proper channels’. Humanity is atomized into individuals set out on our own singular trajectories, trying to connect with others when able along the journey. Some are more introverted than others and relish so much solitude;  some grow deeply depressed due to lacking meaningful connections and a sense of purposeful living.

This is where modern “collectivist” movements attract attention, providing people with something to belong to, an affiliation to identify with, and access to others with relatively similar views to debate and socialize with. The “hating” toward the “opposition” provides members of the collective in question with something to bond with one another over. That last part is very important, because that’s the glue holding together modern groups. People feel the need to collect around some common goal(s), and standing in opposition to another group of people is an easy strategy open to all sorts. Anyone willing to obstruct the goals of “the opposition” is welcome, so long as you don’t harshly critique your own group in the process. Heck of a price of admission, but when people are lonely they do crazy things such as this. People do crave to experience a sense of belonging and identity, this being integral to how one’s personhood is defined.

Looked at from that angle, is it any wonder some people flock toward “collectivist” ideologies and movements? But this word “collectivist” isn’t a bad word in my worldview, per se. Humans are social creatures, yet individualistic at the same time. Hell of a way to be, but this is what human existence consists of. The balance varies from person to person and across cultures (and subcultures), but the fact remains in place. I am unable to comprehend individualism as if in a zero-sum competition with collectivism, as if individualism could win out and utterly defeat collectivism. No, and I don’t think we’d actually want that if it were possible. But does collectivism theoretically possess the power to potentially stamp out individualism? Maybe so. Hence why I’ve come to think of it rather as a ratio than an either/or proposition. Say, 70/30 in terms of protecting individualism and catering to collective concerns. Because individualism requires safeguards to ensure it won’t be so easily overtaken by collective/conformity-minded pursuits, but those ultimately responsible for policing this and making sure the balance isn’t tipped too far are our own selves, we the individuals. Authorities will not encourage the proliferation of independent thought and action, because that’s (rightly) perceived to be a threat to their own claims to power. Citizens have so far demonstrated we’re terrific at dropping the ball repeatedly, thanks in large part to us not being able to agree on barely anything and spending so much time fighting one another.

Sometimes I have to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation we find ourselves in. Not sure how to remedy it other than to strive to distinguish 2 or 3 core principles a great many of us can agree on enough to at least respect and uphold to provide some needed framework that binds us into a collective on one level, but through each individual’s choice and initiative. This means leaving aside all the ways in which we differ in views for a moment so as to support an effort that is of potential benefit to all humans.

The idea is to create a new (well, actually based on an old attempt that we Americans failed at) framework on which new narratives that serve common people rather than merely the most parasitic among us can have a chance at existence. There likely will have to be multiple narratives since there’s no way one size will fit all. There’s plenty of room for flexibility here, if we could only agree that we, as individuals as well as the communities we take part in, want to be in greater control of our destinies rather than submit to being leashed and muzzled by others vying for the power to exploit our labor and play on our psychologies to suit their own dreams of gaining wildly-disproportionate advantage. It’s called slavery, folks, and regardless of the form it may take, it’s the same old song and dance.

Just some thoughts during a loooong night awake with a cold.  sick

On population, decentralizing power, political labeling, and control of the food supply (thoughts generated while watching and reading RockingMrE)

Thursday night I interacted with RockingMrE in the comment sections of a few of his videos. Some of his arguments I can get behind, but others are problematic for me. One being his use of the term “Cultural Marxism” to describe “leftist” political ideology. I take issue with this term because it isn’t adequately descriptive and, IMO, has very little to do with actual Marxist theory. Wikipedia describes “cultural marxism” as a spin-off of sorts, and I’d say it’s spun off far enough to warrant the application of a new term for the social and political phenomenon it’s intended to describe, for clarity’s sake. But that’s a quibble of my own, wishing that we could clean up the language so as to make it less confusing when sharing and discussing ideas, but undoubtedly few care about my opinion there.

Perhaps instead of labeling this political movement toward collectivism trumping individual rights as “cultural marxism” (as if Karl Marx hasn’t been blamed for enough already, why attach his name to ideas he never even promoted?), we might call it “Godwinism,” in reference to William Godwin. In the book The Worldly Philosophers: The Lives, Times, and Ideas of the Great Economic Thinkers (1999; 7th ed.) by Robert L. Heilbroner, William Godwin is described as

[…] a minister and pamphleteer, [who] looked at the heartless world about him and shrank back in dismay. But he looked into the future and what he saw was good. In 1793 he published Political Justice, a book that excoriated the present but gave promise of a distant future in which “there will be no war, no crime, no administration of justice, as it is called, and no government. Besides this there will be no disease, anguish, melancholy, or resentment.” What a wonderful vision! It was, of course, highly subversive, for Godwin’s utopia called for complete equality and for the most thoroughgoing anarchic communism: even the property contract of marriage would be abolished.

[Page 77]

What’s funny there is I can see shades of what both anarcho-capitalists (i.e. libertarian anarchists) and optimistic “leftist” or “progressive” utopians are striving for in his vision. But maybe the term “Godwinists” is already in use. *shrugs* Doesn’t matter since undoubtedly there are countless others promoting the fantasy of a technologically-advanced, collectivist utopia to rename the trend after. My gripe is it’s become doggone confusing trying to sort out all the different meanings behind words like “communism,” “socialism,” and “Marxism” to where it would be really helpful if from here on out we applied new terms to whatever we’re aiming to describe rather than drudging back up one of these popular three. Otherwise the language gets so muddy that it’s nearly impossible to track what definition any given person is operating with when tossing around these terms. My quibble, yes.

The second argument from RockingMrE that gives me pause is his claim that overpopulation isn’t a problem worth concerning ourselves with. Having now read his blog post on this subject, his explanation hasn’t assuaged my worries, and I’ll tell you why. First off, what Thomas Robert Malthus put forth isn’t such a radical proposition. As populations increase, this places a burden on the resource supply (and prompts the generation of new resources, if that is even possible). People like to look at this sort of thing from a purely theoretical perspective, arguing that so much land allotted to so many people will prove sufficient to provide for an even greater number of people than presently in existence or that through our technological advancements future humans will discover solutions to whatever may ail us over time. The first argument takes into account physical spaces and physical resources, saying little, or nothing, about people’s psychological well-being, which is a major concern for social beings like ourselves. His argument there is, in my view, unduly optimistic in placing so much faith (yes, that is the correct word to use there) in science to eventually save us from ourselves. Why do we leap to assuming that that will be the likely outcome? Because a couple hundred years of mind-boggling advancement deems it must be so, that technology can only continue to advance unencumbered and automatically to the benefit of humankind? There is not enough evidence to suggest that will indeed be the case. Because something has happened says nothing about whether it will continue to happen. Besides, we live in Western countries with infrastructures heavily dependent on fossil fuels to continue functioning. If ever there comes a day when that supply is diminished or access is jeopardized (for example, if China and/or India wind up cornering that resource to advance their own economies, or if Middle Eastern countries someday succeed in pushing us out), so much of what we take for granted will be dramatically undermined or completely uprooted. Other human beings may carry on, but those who lose out in that contest will likely starve or be forced to migrate elsewhere.

I noticed that RockingMrE is fairly quick to dismiss people who challenge his assertions on this, referring to them as “cultural marxists” (here we go again) while assuming that the only reason anyone would continue to take Robert Malthus’s ideas seriously is because the television has brainwashed them into doing so. Television is a pain in the rear in terms of spreading propaganda for people to parrot, I do agree, yet there are other reasons why people will continue to be critical of his ‘optimistic’ stance that have nothing to do with popular media (or even Malthus necessarily). And for that you can thank books. Yes, some people do still read information for themselves and draw their own conclusions.

And before I go any further, I have to say that the mention of global warming in his blog post irritated me a bit, because that too isn’t universally embraced by anyone and everyone who may be concerned with the effects of overpopulation. I, for one, am not sold on the claim of global warming either way and will remain open to all sides of the argument until enough evidence is available to sway me. Until such time, it’s not a topic I care to discuss much because people do tend to get so excited about whatever they happen to think on the matter, throwing around hyperbolic claims that we are unable to currently prove or disprove. I personally prefer instead to focus on what is more directly within my locus of control that I might have the ability to change or influence. For me, the emphasis is placed on the social sphere, and my concerns with overpopulation stem from what I’ve come to wonder about in terms of humans’ psychological and social needs for well-being and high quality of life. An increasing population places stress on individuals, partly because of how we’re expected to compete with one another in this new economic frontier, partly because I believe we each need a certain amount of space and tranquility in order to maintain our sanity. Looked at from this angle, concerns over resource depletion are problematic not only because the resources available may actually be in decline but also because these worries induce anxiety that further stresses us.

Now, on to another point RockingMrE made in his blog post, claiming that people who typically take issue with population growth are in favor of implementing some form of top-down population control. As in the State restricting the number of kids people can have (as is the case in China), I assume is what he had in mind there. He is right to be concerned about people looking to the State to solve these dilemmas for us, because unfortunately many people lack the imagination needed to consider other individually-determined alternatives (like the personal option to choose not to create more children, particularly when children already exist who need the loving support of families). It is never my own contention to support the State deciding these matters for the populace — we are capable of deciding and fashioning our own future, and whether we turn out right or wrong in the end, it is best to leave the matter in the hands of people to choose for themselves. That is my belief. If people wind up one day starving because we screwed ourselves by not heeding the writing on the wall, that will still probably be preferable to having the State police our sexual and procreative choices (or, worse yet, the State taking action to reduce the population). So, in short, I am in no way arguing in favor of the State interfering in an effort to control or reduce the human population. I am, however, arguing that we individuals will likely be better off if we take personal action to help reduce the population ourselves. I’ll break down my own view below.

In terms of reducing the number of kids we choose to have, we free up time and energy to focus on the children we’ve already brought into existence and hopefully also to actively engage with others in our own adult lives. That is arguably beneficial for all involved.

In choosing not to create any children, we free ourselves up from a great deal of the economic pressure that typically bears down on parents responsible for caring not only for themselves but also for their dependents. Alleviating economic pressure reduces stress and frees up energy to be directed toward other (hopefully productive) uses of our time. Such as taking time to study and learn and ponder. Or to create art or enhance one’s skill set. Or to try our hands at vegetable gardening so as to reacquaint ourselves with the food production process that has grown so alien to the majority of us born in the last 50 years in Western countries. It’s important that people know how to provide for their essential needs, and we’ve lost the ability to do so, by-and-large, so any effort that seeks to restore what has been lost there I view as worthwhile and necessary if we are to ever break the chains of dependence on Big Ag (a.k.a. massive corporate food production).

Also, when it comes to choosing to live child-free, our resources are freed up to share with other parents and children whom we wish to see prosper. The benefit here is that this could aid in restoring a sense of community, and also it could potentially reduce people’s dependence on the State to provide for their financial needs. In my view, it would be a positive social advancement if we could get to a point where we can work together and reconstruct and support our own communities, thereby reducing the role of the State to interfere in our families and in our financial affairs (which the government is growing determined to scrutinize and attempt to micromanage, something I take great issue with). If we dream for smaller governments restricted in scope and power, then we must take this power into our own hands and determine for ourselves the narrative we’ll willingly subscribe to. There doesn’t appear to be any other alternative than that, which can be more easily understood as breaking down into centralized versus decentralized approaches to managing our lives, which carries over to the communities we take part in. And on that I do not believe there is one right or best way to go about this, so social experimentation across several communities strikes me as ideal in order for people to figure out for themselves what will or won’t work for them. (And these thoughts can lead off on to a lengthy topic all unto itself, but I’m trying to not stray too far in this post.)

Another advantage of focusing one’s life on matters not pertaining to raising kids (which also can apply to people who’ve already successfully raised their children into adulthood) is that time and energy can be freed up to tackle what all we have going on these days, nearly all of which requires serious and diligent consideration. I am arguing that we need adults taking up the challenge of sorting out what’s happening here and why and also to propose ideas on how we might effectively circumvent the status quo or however otherwise bring about productive change. Parents’ involvement is obviously needed in this inquiry as well, but unfortunately many claim to not have much time to spend on it, hence why I direct my talk toward those who aren’t yet parents or are considering not having any more children (or who now have an “empty nest”). Plenty of what we’re faced with today isn’t appropriate for children to take part in, though unfortunately plenty of kids wind up exposed to so much of it anyway (thanks again, TVs and Internet — parental controls do exist, though they don’t do much good if hardly anyone uses them). My point here is that these are adult topics primarily pertaining to adult relations, decided ultimately by adults through learning, voting, exercising purchasing power, raising arguments in the public square to influence the minds of others, or whatever other efforts that might prove useful. Either way, the goal is to free up time and energy so as to be able to take action as needed.

Now, I realize I’ve responded to more than RockingMrE’s one blog post, having watched several of his videos last night, one having been on the topic of anti-natalism. So I’m responding to a mix of what he’s put out into the world, not limited to the topic of overpopulation alone since I see so many of these topics as overlapping and interrelated. But returning to the topic of overpopulation once again, I’d like to invoke the social theory of David Ricardo now.

In that same book by Heilbroner, on page 79, it states:

David Ricardo, an astonishingly successful trader in stocks, was soon to outline a theory of economics which, while less spectacular than Malthus’s inundation of humanity, would be in its own way just as devastating to the prospects of improvement held out by Adam Smith.

For what Ricardo foresaw was the end of a theory of society in which everyone moved together up the escalator of progress. Unlike Smith, Ricardo saw that the escalator worked with different effects on different classes, that some rode triumphantly to the top, while others were carried up a few steps and then were kicked back down to the bottom. Worse yet, those who kept the escalator moving were not those who rose with its motion, and those who got the full benefit of the ride did nothing to earn their reward. And to carry the metaphor one step further, if you looked carefully at those who were ascending to the top, you could see that all was not well here either; there was a furious struggle going on for a secure place on the stairs.

That’s another interesting way to look at so-called “progress.”

Picking back up on page 88 in this chapter concerned with Malthus and Ricardo:

Although Malthus and Ricardo disagreed on almost everything, they did not disagree about what Malthus had to say about population. For in his celebrated Essay in 1798, Malthus seemed not only to elucidate the question once for all but also to shed a great deal of light on the terrible and persistent poverty that haunted the English social scene. Others had vaguely felt that somehow population and poverty were related and a popular if apocryphal story of the day concerned an island off the coast of Chile where one Juan Fernandez landed two goats in case he should later wish to find meat there. On revisiting the island he found that the goats had multiplied beyond reason, so he then landed a pair of dogs who also multiplied and cut down the goats. “Thus,” wrote the author, a Reverend Joseph Townshend, “a new kind of balance was restored. The weakest of both species were the first to pay the debt of nature; the most active and vigorous preserved their lives.” To which he added: “It is the quantity of food which regulates the number of the human species.”

But while this paradigm recognized the balance that must be struck in nature, it still failed to draw the final devastating conclusions implicit in the problem. This was left for Malthus to do.

He began with a fascination in the sheer numerical possibilities contained in the idea of doubling. His appreciation of the staggering multiplicative powers of reproduction has been amply supported by other, later scholars. One biologist has calculated that a pair of animals, each pair producing ten pairs annually, would at the end of twenty years be responsible for 700,000,000,000,000,000,000 offspring; and Havelock Ellis mentions a minute organism that, if unimpeded in its division, would produce from one single tiny being a mass a million times larger than the sun—in thirty days.

But such examples of the prolific power of nature are meaningless for our purposes. The vital question is: how great is the normal reproductive power of a human being? Malthus made the assumption that the human animal would tend to double its numbers in twenty-five years. In the light of his times this was a relatively modest assumption. It necessitated an average family of six, two of whom were presumed to die before reaching the age of marriage. Turning to America, Malthus pointed out that the population there had in fact doubled itself every twenty-five years for the preceding century and a half, and that in some backwoods areas where life was freer and healthier, it was doubling every fifteen years!

But against the multiplying tendencies of the human race—and it is inconsequential to the argument whether it tended to double in twenty-five years or in fifty—Malthus opposed the obdurate fact that land, unlike people, cannot be multiplied. Land can be added to laboriously, but the rate of progress is slow and hesitant; unlike population, land does not breed. Hence, while the number of mouths grows geometrically, the amount of cultivable land grows only arithmetically.

And the result, of course, is as inevitable as a proposition in logic: the number of people is bound, sooner or later, to outstrip the amount of food. “Taking the population of the world at any number, a thousand millions, for instance,” wrote Malthus in his Essay, “. . . the human species would increase in the ratio of 1, 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256, 516, etc. and subsistence as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, etc. In two centuries and a quarter the population would be to the means of subsistence as 512 to 10; in three centuries as 4096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be incalculable.”

Such a dreadful view of the future would be enough to discourage any man: “The view,” Malthus wrote, “has a melancholy hue.” The troubled Reverend was driven to the conclusion that the incorrigible and irreconcilable divergence between mouths and food could have only one result: the larger portion of mankind would forever be subjected to some kind of misery or other. For somehow the huge and ever potentially widening gap must be sealed: population, after all, cannot exist without food. Hence among the primitives such customs as infanticide; hence war, disease, and, above all, poverty.

And if these are not enough: “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to provide subsistence . . . that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. . . . But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success still be incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow, levels the population with the food of the world.”

No wonder poor Godwin complained that Malthus had converted friends of progress into reactionaries. For this is truly the doctrine of despair. Nothing, nothing can rescue mankind from the constant threat of drowning under its own weight but the frail reed of “moral restraint.” And how dependable is moral restraint against the great passion of sex?

. .

Was Malthus right?

As recently as the early 1970s the general outlook for world population growth seemed to confirm the prescience of his expectations, at least in the less developed portions of the world. In those years demographers spoke of a possible world population of 20 billion—five times the population in 1970—if the momentum of population growth went unchecked for another fifty years.

Today the pendulum has swung somewhat to the other side. In fact, thinking on the population problem has always swung between poles of opinion: it is striking that Malthus himself was much more sanguine in a second edition of his famous essay published only five years after the first, pinning his hopes on the belief that the laboring classes would learn to exercise voluntary “restraint” by postponing their age of marriage.

Today’s cautious optimism is based to a large extent on technological breakthroughs, especially the so-called Green Revolution which has raised crop yields dramatically in countries like India. India today produces enough foodstuffs to be a modest exporter. Hence, although agronomists still hold their breath each year until the crops are in, the terrible prospect of global famine, brought about by Malthus’s arithmetic of supply and demand, is no longer regarded as a realistic prognosis. Horrified TV watchers in the 1980s who saw pictures of skeletonlike human beings in Ethiopia and the sub-Saharan belt were not witnessing Malthus’s predictions come true, but the consequences of localized conditions, such as droughts and inadequate transportation networks.

Nonetheless, more is needed to set aside the Malthusian specter than an increase in food production. Even if global famine no longer seems imminent, experts warn that population pressures are still immense. […]

Perhaps more important, we must not forget that Malthus was right in claiming that population growth, proceeding exponentially, inherently has the capability of swamping increases in agricultural productivity. Thus there remains the necessity to master the demand side of the equation as well as the supply side. What is required is control over the production of children as well as food.

Is worldwide population control possible? The answer seems to be a surprising yes. It is surprising because demographers have long doubted that the nations worst afflicted with the population “disease” could surmount the barriers of peasant ignorance, organized religious opposition, and political apathy. Now a more sanguine outlook prevails. During the last years, countries as different as Mexico and China have switched from indifference or outright hostility to an enthusiastic endorsement of birth control. Even India, long the despair of demographers, has made a determined—indeed, at times a ruthless—effort to introduce planned parenthood.

And the effort has begun to pay off. In the years 1970-1975, despite the prevailing gloom, the rate of growth of population slowed down for the first time in history. The growth of population has not yet stopped by any means—U.N. experts predict that today’s world population of some 5 billion may grow to between 9 to 10 billion before it levels off. But at least and at last, the growth rate is slowing down, and the leveling may come sooner than was imaginable only a decade ago. The trouble is that the victory will not be equally shared. In Europe, for example, we already have something close to ZPG—zero population growth, except for immigration. Fifty years hence, the United States own population, today roughly 275 million, may well number over 390 million, including some 800,000 immigrants. This is a total that will surely add to urban crowding, although it is not likely to overstrain total resources.

But in the poorest parts of the world, where food is scarcest, the forecast is not so reassuring. Birthrates are slowly dropping there, too, but more slowly than in the West, and from a higher starting point. The Malthusian specter will not disappear for a long time.

Curiously, Malthus himself did not aim his shafts at those parts of the world where the problem is so severe today. He was concerned about England and the Western world, not about the continents of the East and South.

It’s a good book and was received as gift from a family member a few years back. In it, Heilbroner summarizes the views put forth by several economists, a number of whom I was previously unfamiliar with. At a later date I’d like to transcribe more from it. But for tonight that suits my purposes and provides a glimpse into what Malthus claimed and why. His thoughts were arguably logical, though I realize many people continue to hinge their hopes on future innovations coming to the rescue. And on that note, one thing I find very interesting are unforeseen variables, as in the unintended side effects or consequences that spin off from any and every action, whether positive or negative or a mixed blessing.

One such case that springs to mind pertains to Big Ag’s innovations in pesticides and genetic modification of crops. Or at least that is presumed to be the culprit behind the mysterious die-off of thousands of honeybees relied on to pollinate our nation’s fruits and vegetables. A recent New York Times article (March 28, 2013) shares the latest news and points with suspicion toward the role new neonicotinoids (“the nicotine-derived pesticide that European regulators implicate in bee deaths”) may play in this fiasco. At this juncture the matter isn’t settled, so we can’t say with certainty what’s going on. I merely offer this as one example of how noble scientific advancements can be accompanied by unintended consequences that may themselves prove disastrous (as the honeybee die-off potentially could, especially when compounded with droughts and other factors impacting crop yields).

I remain open to the possibilities, seeing no reason to embrace optimism or pessimism going forward. The situation simply is what it is, right or wrong. My concern lies chiefly with us being able to partake in lives worth living, which in my view involves us taking actions to regain and reclaim control over that which we can reasonably assume greater responsibility for, which I figure will go a long way in mending our social relations by requiring we learn to cooperate (even if that does entail groups separating off and going their own way so as to allow space between those unable or unwilling to find common ground).

The more I’ve considered our economic, political, and social options, the more important does food production appear to be, because in that lies our greatest dependence on State and corporate powers-that-be. When the food supply was severed away from being under the common people’s control, it set in motion a series of events that have culminated in us being rendered no more powerful than pets begging for someone else to provide what we need to get by. The population size becomes especially important in this scenario because modern farming practices have created conditions that allow for population expansion, yet people then become dependent on this new system because, as is commonly stated, we now could not generate enough food through the use of older techniques to be able to sustain this many of us. That sets us up with a circular dilemma that apparently cannot be remedied so long as this many people exist; and if the modern food producing system fails to perform as expected, we all go down with it, having no alternative source of food to turn toward that could sufficiently maintain more than a small percentage of us. That’s quite a stranglehold to wake up and find ourselves in. Welcome to the 21st century, folks.

At least that’s how it’s come to appear from where I sit. And that’s enough typing on here for one evening.

Excerpts from the audiobook “Age of Empathy” by primatologist Frans de Waal

A short excerpt from the audiobook The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons For a Kinder Society by Frans de Waal (read by Alan Sklar; 2009; disc 3, tracks 3-6) on the topic of social synchronicity and imitation among primates as well as humans:

Disc 4, tracks 1-4; on the topics of empathy and sympathy in chimps and humans:

Disc 5, tracks 4-5; on the subject of primates and humans evolving in group environments, arguing that altruism is emotionally driven:

Happiness

People will do what they’re going to do. Apparently that involves chasing fancies and pleasures and entertainment for a great many people. Plenty speak of wanting to find “happiness,” as if it’s something we stumble across, something to be found lying around waiting to be discovered. I do not see happiness in this way, nor do I focus a terrible amount of attention on the question of happiness specifically. To me, happiness comes and goes. It is worthwhile, but so are many other ways of feeling and experiencing this life. There are balances to strive for — that’s how I’d prefer to state it rather than speaking of seeking out happiness, as if it could exist all unto itself, independent of all other emotions and of our actions and choices and outlooks molded over time.

Wife Swap — the Haggards meet the Buseys (plus additional thoughts)

Every once in a while television shows prove useful:

Others not so much. Ha!  Haven’t seen much “Wife Swap” and don’t subscribe to cable tv — but then there’s Youtube, the bringer of so many oddities into my livingroom. lol

I was familiar with Ted Haggard’s sex and drug scandal, though knew nothing about his family life. Gary Busey has for a long time now struck me as someone losing his mind (isn’t anyone who willingly agreed to be on “Celebrity Rehab”?), probably largely due to injuries sustained in his motorcycle accident, but I appreciated his acting in a few films (“Lost Highway,” “Hider in the House”). Never cared to look into his personal life. It’s an interesting blend of families.

Struck me as tv shallowness between approximately the 21:00 to 34:00 portion. Would’ve been nice had this interaction been extended over several weeks and shown at documentary length without the rushed, typical tv feel-goodness crap. If there’s no real depth shown, then what’s the point?

But anyway, that aside. Ted Haggard continues to weird me out a little. How does a family surviving “on donations” afford a house that nice? Since when is brand-new suburbia considered roughin’ it? Not wanting to see him or his family suffer … just uncomfortable with the whole idea of Ted Haggard, a preacher known for speaking out against gays, clandestinely choosing to visit a male prostitute for sex (and meth) and then turn around and brush it off as a moral failing that has brought him closer to Jesus. Seems to me the lying and deception were the moral failings, and that’s pretty major for a preacher, but choosing to engage in homosexual sex speaks more to repressed desires. What was that all about? Just felt bi-curious? Or is it more than that? Suppose it’s not really any of my or anyone else’s business, unless you’re among the gay people Haggard spoke out so strongly against. As was the male prostitute he visited. Anyone care what happened to him? Last I read Mike Jones lost his job working in a gym and had a tough go at finding new employment. Not sure if he’s still a sex worker or masseuse, but you can just imagine the grief he too was given. Think about it — if you’re known as the prostitute who outed his high-profile client, that pretty much nips other potential clients’ interest in the bud right away. Whistle-blowers don’t typically make many friends.

Jones’ side of the story really didn’t strike me as malicious. Jones didn’t realize his client (who’d given him a fake name) was a preacher on television known for bashing gays. He was working out at the gym one morning, after I believe nearly 3 years of having dealt with Haggard, when he saw Haggard’s sermon broadcast and made the connection. They weren’t having “an affair” as some news reports like to term it — both acknowledge it was strictly a sexual and financial arrangement.

What about Ted Haggard that repulses so many who learn of this scandal is that he spoke so harshly against homosexuality to his congregation and television viewers. I can understand having mixed sexual desires and choosing to see an escort if that might scratch the itch, and I can even understand to an extent why someone might choose not to be 100% forward with their partner about their activities, but I don’t accept the bashing and hypocrisy. It’s like when Elliot Spitzer manned a task force that’s job was to bust prostitutes, a criminal justice initiative he spoke very publicly in support of, only to find out he was seeing an escort himself. That’s stupid hypocrisy on a level that blows people’s minds, rightfully so. It’s deliberate double-talk and double-action, accusing others for doing the very thing you secretly do as well. It’s a pity too, because when people get that high up and get themselves involved in scandals of that magnitude, that drama can eclipse their worthwhile accomplishments (as with Spitzer calling out corporate corruption).

Makes living out loud seem like the better option. If you out your own self, it robs others of the power to do so. Are you a hypocrite if you are critical of that which you yourself and others engage in? It’s a thought.

Another thought that sprang to mind that I’ve been pondering periodically is women’s role in families and in wider society to act as primary moral agents. Maybe a better way to say that would be that women take up a socially-influential role. Whether through nagging or religious devotion or sexual enticement or ridiculing and gossip, women do tend to take the role seriously, especially in terms of ‘policing’ the behavior of others. Not saying that as a cutdown to women — there’s potential value in people being driven in that way when it comes down to social cohesiveness and meeting what arguably are appropriate expectations. Not that we today are managing the role very well and in fact are pretty well screwing up the task, but the reasons for that run in a bunch of different directions and are a direct result of social influx brought about by rapid changes over the last couple hundred years that have made us all a little (or a lot) crazy. The question for me becomes what should we be adjusting to? The answers I’m hearing back aren’t satisfactory IMO, because so much of the talk revolves around humans needing to bend and mold in order to fit the new economic landscape. But that’s a topic to save for another day.