Archive | July, 2013

What are necessary conditions for a democracy?

9 Jul

What are necessary conditions for a democracy?.

The Language of Democracy

9 Jul

This is a short blog on communication skills. Previously I had written a blog on how compromise is fundamental to the workings of a democracy and that blog was ‘inspired’ by a discussion I had with some Italians who were students in my English lesson. Recently, I had another discussion with students which prompted my writing this blog.

To explain: in my teaching English as a Second Language I make the point that to have good communication skills one must know not only correct grammar, vocabulary, intonation, pronunciation, etc., but also know how a culture uses the language. In short, what is seen by a specific culture as good communication skills? Now, this is a very interesting topic in itself (I taught a university course on ‘Cross-Cultural Communication’) but in my less intensive ESL classes, I bring to students an awareness of the model of assertive communication. While I clearly understand that assertiveness is not a model that all cultures have adhered to (e.g., Asian and Native American) in English speaking countries, esp. the business world (many of my students are learning English for business purposes) – but not only – assertiveness is seen and taught as a viable method of fostering clear communication, improving problem-solving and goal achievement, and reducing conflict between co-workers. Also, as a clinical psychologist, who did a lot of couples/marital therapy, I also used the assertiveness model to foster clearer and less problematic communication skills between my clients.

So, in one ESL lesson, we were talking about some basic principles of the assertiveness model:  Assertive communication is effective communication. It’s how to deal confidently and successfully with the people around you. Assertive people feel in control, they achieve win-win outcomes in any interpersonal transaction. They make their point persuasively whilst supporting the opinion of others. They build co-operation within a team and between teams. Assertive people communicate self-respect AND respect for others. When we are assertive we communicate what we want or prefer. We state our preference clearly and confidently without making ourselves or others look small, without being threatening or putting others down. This results in open, more genuine relationships. The four types of communication are aggressive, passive, passive-aggressive and assertive.

As we talked, one of my students said, “This is the language of Democracy.” Surprised by this spontaneous comment, I paused and with quick reflection, I said, “Yes, you are right” but we didn’t have time to take the comment up for a discussion. The next day, upon reflecting on this comment, I had to agree again with it. As I wrote in another blog, ‘What Are the Necessary Conditions of Democracy’, democracy requires ‘a political culture of negotiation, compromise, accommodation, and a willingness to lose. It is widely recognized as essential to democratic stability. Especially important here is the argument that democracy institutionalizes a means of nonviolent conflict resolution- – -the willingness to negotiate, compromise, and debate, rather than fight.’ R.J.Rummel

So, it is evident that effective and clear communication is also a necessary condition for a well-functioning Democracy. So my student was correct, the description of assertive communication above certainly fits the bill. Often political discussions in Italy, as well as other democratic countries, can degenerate into name-calling with no reasonable debate on the issues. When they do, the discussions no longer follow the guidelines of assertive communication; both, in the intent or desire for a political culture of negotiation, compromise, accommodation, a willingness to lose and also, the use or knowledge of the specific assertive communication skills. The desire and knowledge of good communication go together for successful communication necessary for a democracy. Without the desire for a ‘win-win’ situation as well as a functional knowledge of good communication skills, the functioning of dialogue about concerns, negotiation, and debates will rapidly break down into poor communication and confusion and deadlock. Therefore, I suggest a public interest group, in all democratic countries, form to do a continuing evaluation of how well politicians communicate in an effective assertive manner.

The Veil of Unknowing: The Inscrutability of Existence

9 Jul


“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead —his eyes are closed. The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.” Albert Einstein

This short essay takes serious the advice of Albert Einstein and will satisfactorily clarify the title in a couple of paragraphs. One of the topics that I discussed in my books, The Teachings of the Buddha: Seeing Without Illusion and The Buddha’s Radical Psychology: An Exploration is that we and all living beings are confronted with the fact that because of our evolutionary biological constitution we are like the men of the well-known ‘Blind Men and Elephant’ parable. The story goes that a long time ago a raja gather together all the men of a town who were congenitally blind. He presented to each man different parts of the elephant: to one the head of the elephant, to another its ears, to another a tusk, to another the trunk, the foot, back, tail, and tuft of the tail, saying to each one that that was the elephant. Then he asked each to describe the elephant. The men who were presented with the head answered, ‘Sire, an elephant is like a pot.’ And the men who had inspected the ear replied, ‘An elephant is like a winnowing basket.’ Those who had been presented with a tusk said it was a plowshare. Those who knew only the trunk said it was a plough; others said the body was a granary; the foot, a pillar; the back, a mortar; the tail, a pestle, etc. Then they began to quarrel, shouting, ‘Yes it is!’ ‘No, it is not!’ ‘An elephant is not that!’ ‘Yes, it’s like that!’ and so on, till they came to blows over the matter.

Now this parable has two lessons: one is that of the nature of dogmatic points of view and more for this essay the nature of knowledge. For if the elephant represents existence in the sense of the external environment, human beings are like the blind men of the story when it comes to comprehending the nature of existence. We can’t understand yet we keep thinking we can. Also for some this has the consequence of dogmatic thinking.

The reason we can’t know the veiled nature of existence is really quite obvious and depends on only two factors. The first and primary factor is that we are physical beings and as physical beings, we interact and input the sense data from the external environment through a highly selective physical apparatus – our body. We, and by the nature of it, all physical beings, have by necessity certain senses which have adapted over our evolutionary history to be sensitive to only a very restricted range of available sense data. It is through this highly limited input of the overall possible data that we then construct with our cognitive apparatus our ‘world’ or our personal idiosyncratic significance and meaning of the external world. In fact, this construction is an illusion of the veiled reality of existence and is dependent on our particular species nervous system and brain structure.

Therefore, we see that existence which is our ‘grounding’ is inscrutable and unknowable. Just to give a few examples of our very limited range of the known frequencies in the universe – we might not be aware of many other existent manifestations – what we call visible light is just one ten-billionth of the electromagnetic radiation spectrum. So, we’re only seeing a very tiny sliver of that, because we have biological receptors that are tuned into that little part of the spectrum. Radio signals, mobile phone signals, television signals, and many other signals are going right through our body without our awareness because we do not have biological receptors for that part of the spectrum. Also, while the human ear is capable of hearing many sounds produced in nature, certainly not all. The normal range of hearing for a healthy young person is 20 to 20,000 Hz so a heartbeat of 1 or 2 Hz cannot be heard and neither can we detect frequencies as high as 100,000 Hz as most bats can.

Then after receiving the various available sense inputs, our brain processes these inputs and then constructs an interpretation of that information so we can make sense out of the raw data we receive. This construction becomes our ‘world’ or our sphere or scene of our inner life. While in an evolutionary way this process has been successful to allow survival and adaption; in the larger sense living creatures are embedded and encapsulated in their own worlds unable to fully comprehend the larger universe because it is impossible to input all that information and then create a model about it. In fact, even the type or form of thoughts we can think are constrained by our biology and even more surprising Space and Time is also manufactured by our brain. So we live in a veiled universe and us mere mortals will never totally be able to see beyond the veil.

Familiarity with nature never breeds contempt. The more one learns, the more one expects surprises, and the more one becomes aware of the inscrutable. Archibald Rutledge

Steven Hawkings and Alien Life

9 Jul

Steve Hawking and Alien Life

Recently the world renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking created a stir by saying, “If aliens visit us, the outcome would be much as when Columbus landed in America, which didn’t turn out well for the Native Americans. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.” Hawking said this in a forthcoming documentary made for the Discovery Channel. He argues that, instead of trying to find and communicate with life in the cosmos, humans would be better off doing everything they can to avoid contact.

Hawking believes that, based on the sheer number of planets that scientists know must exist, we are not the only life-form in the universe. There are, after all, billions and billions of stars in our galaxy alone, with, it is reasonable to expect, an even greater number of planets orbiting them. And it is not unreasonable to expect some of that alien life to be intelligent, and capable of interstellar communication.

However, Seth Shostak, a senior astronomer at the SETI (standing for Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute in California, the world’s leading organization searching for telltale alien signals, is not so sure. “This is an unwarranted fear,” Shostak says. “If their interest in our planet is for something valuable that our planet has to offer, there’s no particular reason to worry about them now. If they’re interested in resources, they have ways of finding rocky planets that don’t depend on whether we broadcast or not. They could have found us a billion years ago.”

Paul Davies, an astrophysicist at Arizona State University and chair of SETI’s post-detection taskforce, argues that alien brains, with their different architecture, would interpret information very differently from ours. What we think of as beautiful or friendly might come across as violent to them, or vice versa. “Lots of people think that because they would be so wise and knowledgeable, they would be peaceful,” adds Stewart. “I don’t think you can assume that. I don’t think you can put human views on to them; that’s a dangerous way of thinking. Aliens are alien. If they exist at all, we cannot assume they’re like us.”

Several more arguments by Paul Davies are proposed as to why the scenario of hostile aliens visiting earth is inaccurate and they include the following:

Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, and there were stars and planets around long before the solar system even existed. Assuming intelligent life is likely, as Hawking suggests, then some alien communities would have emerged a very long time in the past. If resources are the motivating factor, then at least one group of aliens would surely have spotted Earth as a desirable destination millions of years ago, and come here when they could have had the planet for the asking, without pesky humans to complicate the takeover.

Another problem with Hawking’s picture is the sheer distances involved. The galaxy is huge by human standards. The nearest star is over four light years away -– about 25 trillion miles. Within the scientific community, even the optimists believe the nearest civilization could well be hundreds of light years away. Because nothing can travel faster than light, the Hollywood image of aliens plying the vast interstellar voids in star fleets is absurd. It’s far more likely that alien civilizations would limit contact to radio communication rather than engage in the sort of close encounters favored by movie makers.

Suppose by some fluke aliens did come to visit Earth in the near future, then comparisons with Columbus are in any case wide of the mark, and reflect the rampant anthropocentrism that pervades much speculation about alien life. Just because we go around wiping out our competitors doesn’t mean aliens would do the same. A civilization that has endured for millions of years would have overcome any aggressive tendencies, and may well have genetically engineered its species for harmonious living. Any truly bellicose alien species would either have wiped itself out long ago, or already taken over the galaxy.

Other responses were mixed in their agreement or not of Hawking’s warning.

The Journal of Cosmology compiled responses from a dozen scientists and has published them online. Some criticized Hawking’s use of human behavior to predict what aliens would do, but others said that human behavior was a reasonable yardstick. Few, however, questioned the premise of Hawking’s statements — which alien life forms probably exist and we are likely someday to encounter them.

Blair Csuti, a biologist at Oregon State University, defended Hawking’s trepidation, arguing that the principles of evolution would have shaped those beings just as they did life on Earth, selecting for self-preserving behavior. “Aliens visiting newly discovered planets, like Earth, would place their own interests above those of unsophisticated indigenous residents.”

Robert Ehrlich, a physicist at George Mason University agreed, further imagining that the aliens would be “adaptable robots whose mental processes reflect those of their senders.”

Others, like Chandra Wickramasinghe of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and B.G. Sidharth at the B.M. Birla Science Centre in India, took a more low-tech view of alien invasions. They argued that the threat would come not from green people with fancy stun guns, but from pathogenic microbes that could infect life on Earth.  “When Columbus was followed by the Spanish conquistadors, it was not advanced weaponry which destroyed the native civilizations, but disease,” Sidharth wrote.

Randy D. Allen, a biologist at Oklahoma State University, argued that a smart-enough species could develop a quantum computer and eventually transfer their consciousnesses into it. “Perhaps … they can “see” or “feel” the entire universe. Maybe they’ve gained the ability to manipulate elementary particles and can control its evolution and its fate. They would have become, by any human definition, gods.”

GianCarlo Ghirardi, a physicist at Italy’s University of Trieste, asked why intelligent aliens should have negative intentions toward earthlings. “If Hawking’s aliens are anything like humans, then I am optimistic … that their scientific development should be accompanied also by an ethical development, and (they) might value life,” he wrote.

Another physicist wrote several years before Hawking’s warning, a different but I think much more sophisticated and reasonable hypothesis about us humans communicating with extra-terrestrials. This scientist is Wolfram Schommers. In his book ‘The Visible and the Invisible’, Schommers uses an example of a turkey as a non-human life form in a discussion on perception and world views. If we think extra-terrestrial instead of his turkey, the results are the same discussion. He writes the following: ‘Objective’ does not mean that a certain fact actually exists in (basic) reality in the form experienced by an observer (whether the observer is a turkey or a man). In what form a certain entity (e.g. a chick) exists in objective reality is something that we can principally know nothing about and make no pronouncement upon…Since however a turkey’s (alien) experiences in everyday life are fundamentally different from those of the human observer, the particular questions which a highly developed turkey (alien) brain would raise, can be expected to be fundamentally different from those of the human observer. We should not forget that experiences at the level of everyday experience are the basis of any science. …The turkey (or organism which evolved from it) will possibly know very little about ‘our’ cosmos or ‘our’ elementary particles. Accordingly it could also hardly recognize the sense of a radio telescope (SETI uses radio waves to try to communicate with extra-terrestrials) or a particle accelerator. Instead of these devices the turkey (alien) would possibly construct and manufacture devices whose deeper sense remained hidden to human observers. …We can never recognize fundamental reality, but only versions dependent on the particular biological species and system.

So what I take from this particular argument (and this is only one aspect of a much deeper analysis of matter and mind in physics) by Schommers is that an extra-terrestrial, having evolved in a very different manner than humans will have a very different brain structure, perception system, etc. and understanding of objective reality. They probably won’t have developed the same constructs or technological instruments to correspond with human ones.

Therefore, the previous anthropomorphic descriptions of possible alien motivations, world views and technologies by Hawking et al. – except Paul Davies- are in the end naïve and unsuccessful. While most astrophysicists and astronomers agree that alien life forms are likely in the vast universe, I suggest they become more sophisticated in their understanding of evolutionary biology and its effect on systems of perceiving, worldview construction and, therefore, comprehension of this mysterious cosmos of which we are a part.