Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Absent-minded Science, Part II: The Zombie Defense

And here's Part II of this seven-part series on absent-minded science:

Here’s a head-scratcher for you: Can zombies argue that they don’t exist? Empirical evidence suggests they can. Or does it?

The philosophy of mind is a thriving field in recent decades, with new books and articles appearing with increasing frequency. This article is the second in an occasional series on the role of mind in the universe and, thus, in science.

Strangely, modern science is dominated by the idea that to be scientific means to remove consciousness from our explanations in order to be “objective.” This was, of course, the rationale behind behaviorism, a now-dead theory of psychology that took this trend to a perverse extreme. Behaviorists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner scrupulously avoided any discussion of what their subjects thought, intended, or wanted and focused, instead, entirely on behavior. They believed that because thoughts in other people’s heads, or even in animals, are impossible to know with certainty, we should simply ignore them in our theories. We can only be truly scientific, they asserted, if we focus solely on what can be directly observed and measured: behavior.

This point of view is known most generally as “positivism,” which asserts that only those things we can measure directly should be part of our theories in science. Positivism has held sway in various branches of science to varying degrees over the last couple of centuries. Early in his career, Einstein was strongly inspired by Ernst Mach’s version of positivism, creating his special theory of relativity in 1905 partly as a response to this philosophy (and thus expelling the luminiferous ether from physics as “superfluous”). But Einstein learned better, rejecting positivism by the middle of his career as inadequate.

Read the rest at IONs

Absent-minded Science, Part I

This is an expanded version of an oped that ran earlier this year in the Independent. I'm now an "official" blogger for the Institute of Noetic Sciences, based in Petaluma. IONs, as they are known, is recently famous for being featured in Dan Brown's book, The Lost Symbol, due to the fact that some of their research is focused on parapsychology.

Absent-Minded Science, Part I

We learn from an early age that “to be scientific” means avoiding attributing to nature humanlike tendencies such as mind or purpose. To be “anthropomorphic” in science is a cardinal sin. Modern science, with its amazing successes in improving human understanding, did in fact spring in part from this tendency, made clear with Descartes’ philosophical separation of reality into two categories, physical stuff and mental stuff. The mental stuff is the realm of spirit, and this is God’s domain. The physical stuff is also God’s handiwork, but it works according to identifiable rules (laws) that humankind may discern through careful observation and experiment.

However, as with most big ideas, Descartes’ idea was overly simplistic and, we now know, inaccurate. Very few modern scientists or philosophers would argue in favor of Cartesian dualism, though this view is still fairly common among more religious-minded people. But its direct residue is “reductionist materialism,” which simply ignores the mental-spiritual realm that Descartes proposed and attempts instead to explain everything as simply matter in motion. Recent challenges to Cartesian dualism and reductionist materialism from a non-religious perspective come from such philosophers as Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, and David Ray Griffin, who realize that modern science went astray long ago by trying to expunge mind from its explanations.

The problem becomes apparent when we try to explain mind itself within the “scientific method,” which does its best to ignore mind in nature. The prevailing theory of mind argues that mind emerges from mindless matter when a certain level of complexity is reached in both evolutionary history and in each organism. That is, at some point in the history of life on our planet, a mind appeared for the first time where it was wholly absent before. In this view, the constituents of matter are completely devoid of mind until the required level of complexity is reached – whether physicists decide that matter is ultimately comprised of quarks, energy, fields, strings, or what have you.

But here’s the problem: It is literally impossible for mind to spring forth from that which is wholly devoid of mind.

Read the rest at IONs

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Process philosophy, Buddhism and Western science

This is a talk I gave to a small group of academics and Buddhist practitioners and teachers at UC Santa Barbara. The group's purpose is to discuss the intersection of Western science and Buddhism. I suggested that process philosophy, the Western tradition championed by Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, David Ray Griffin and many others, is a very good bridge between these domains, with some interesting commonalities and distinctions. Many of the pictures got lost in this pdf conversion, but the message still comes through.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Burning Man, Abundance and Utopia

Burning Man is a riotous, yet organized, annual celebration of music, art and excess held in the Nevada desert. It attracts about 50,000 visitors and becomes the third or fourth largest city in Nevada for one week each year. But while Burning Man celebrates certain types of excess, it also emphasizes stewardship of our planet’s limited resources through various means.

This is my third peregrination to Black Rock City, the artificial city that springs up each year to accommodate the revelers. This year’s art theme, chosen by the organizers, was Metropolis, which was intended to induce some thought about how communities develop and how people get along with each other and their environment. The city itself is laid out each year on the completely flat plane of a dry lakebed. It’s a horseshoe-shaped city three miles across — a lot of room for revelers but obviously not unlimited room. Kinda like our planet.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Kicking the Psychophysical Laws Into Gear

This is a presentation I gave to the UC Santa Barbara Psychology Department, at the invitation of Professor Jonathan Schooler, a co-thinker of mine in many ways, as well as a partner in crime on many adventures. The presentation is a distillation of my unfortunately rather long paper that has been accepted for publication by the Journal of Consciousness Studies. The very quick summary: all matter is experiential and is thus better described as "menter"; the experiential units of menter are determined by a particular type of field coherence that leads to a "shared sampling rate with respect to reality." It's all about coherence and it may be the case that quantum coherence is at the heart of human consciousness and the arisal of experiential units more generally (my theory is meant to be a general theory, meaning it should apply equally well in all times, in all places and to all groupings of matter/menter).

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Mind, World, God: Science and Spirit in the 21st Century

This is a pre-print of my first book. It attempts a new integration of science and spirituality that is heavily inspired by process philosophy in Western thought and Vedanta and Buddhism in the East.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Absent-Minded Science

We learn from an early age that “to be scientific” means avoiding attributing to nature human-like tendencies such as mind or purpose. To be “anthropomorphic” in science is a cardinal sin. Modern science, with its amazing successes in improving human understanding, did in fact spring in part from this practice, made crystal clear with Descartes’ philosophical separation of reality into two categories: physical stuff and mental stuff. The mental stuff is the realm of spirit and this is God’s domain. The physical stuff is also God’s handiwork but it works according to identifiable rules (laws) that humankind may discern through careful observation and experiment.

However, as with most big ideas, Descartes’ idea was overly simplistic and, we now know, inaccurate. Very few modern scientists or philosophers would argue in favor of Cartesian dualism (though this view is still fairly common among more religious-minded people) but its direct residue is “reductionist materialism,” which simply ignores the mental/spiritual realm that Descartes proposed and attempts, instead, to explain everything as simply matter in motion. The recent challenge to Cartesian dualism and reductionist materialism (from a non-religious perspective) comes from those who realize that modern science went astray long ago by trying to expunge mind from its explanations.

The problem becomes apparent when we try to explain mind itself within the “scientific” method which does its best to ignore mind in nature. The prevailing theory argues that mind emerges from mindless matter when a certain level of complexity is reached, in both evolutionary history and in each organism. That is, at some point in the history of life on our planet, a mind appeared for the first time where it was wholly absent before. Matter itself is completely devoid of mind, in this view—whether physicists decide that matter is ultimately comprised of quarks and other little chunks, energy, fields, strings, or what-have-yous.

But here’s the problem: It is literally impossible for mind to spring forth from that which is wholly devoid of mind. This problem becomes clear if we envision the ultimate constituents of matter as akin to little billiard balls. (This is not an accurate notion, even in terms of the prevailing views of matter, but it is accurate in terms of my point here). No matter how we arrange any number of the little billiard balls, the collection will never give rise to any type of mind—unless there is some type of mind contained in the little billiard balls from the get-go. And the prevailing theory of mind today denies that there is any mind at all in the little billiard balls or any of the ultimate constituents of matter.

Read the rest at the Independent.

The Feed-in Tariff Discussion Heats Up

The Gulf oil spill catastrophe is an ongoing tragedy. And while the well seems to be capped now, we will surely see the harm from the spilled oil unfold for many months and years to come. From all tragedy springs opportunity, however, and one positive outcome flowing from BP's unfortunate accident is a renewed focus on energy and climate change, at least among some of the saner segments of the American populace.

The federal climate change bill appears to be dead this session, the victim of partisan politics in defiance of good sense. Other efforts are more promising, including a growing national focus on feed-in tariffs as a key policy tool for promoting renewable energy. A feed-in tariff is a guaranteed price paid for renewable energy projects that meet certain criteria. Contrary to what many believe, a feed-in tariff doesn't have to be an "above-market" price. The key features of feed-in tariffs are what I just mentioned: a guaranteed price for those projects that meet defined criteria.

California, often the leader on energy policy, is not in fact in the lead on feed-in tariff policy. Rather, municipalities like Gainesville, Florida and Sacramento, and states such as Vermont, Washington state and Oregon, are leading the charge on feed-in tariffs. Further to our north, the province of Ontario has the most robust feed-in tariff program in North America, similar to the European model that has proven so successful in Germany, Italy, Spain, Czech Republic and many other countries.

California is, however, leading in one key area related to feed-in tariffs. The California Public Utilities Commission recently filed a declaratory order request with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). This kind of action asks FERC to decide on a legal dispute before it makes it to the courts, hopefully heading off legal action. The CPUC asked FERC to decide if a limited new feed-in tariff, applicable only to cogeneration facilities under 20 megawatts, was preempted by federal law.

See the rest at GreenTechMedia

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Unipolar Moment Reconsidered

Columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2004 that the predominance of U.S. power in the world after the fall of the Soviet Union was a “staggering development in history, not seen since the fall of Rome.” Krauthammer and his fellow neoconservatives famously concluded from this disparity in power that the United States needed to adopt an aggressive foreign policy agenda to enhance and continue its dominance in the “New American Century.”

This conclusion was the wrong lesson from history and from any reasonable and compassionate view of the desirable future arc of humanity. Rather than consolidate and expand U.S. power in the 21st century, with a mix of military, economic and cultural coercion — the neocon strategy — the United States should instead seize what is still our unique unipolar moment and work toward a truly multilateral and multipolar world.

The last two centuries have been dominated by one nation — the hegemon, which comes from the Greek for “leader.” Britain was the first global hegemon, and indeed the “sun never set on the British empire.” Britain’s dominance was fueled, literally, by coal, which allowed the industrial revolution to work its magic first in Britain. This led to great economic might, which was translated into military might. With a sense of cultural superiority, the “White Man’s Burden,” the British empire was ruthless in its domination of areas of the world as far-flung as North America, India, Jamaica, Gibraltar and Australia. Britain at its peak, however, never comprised more than 10 percent of the global economy.

The United States, fueled by coal and oil, which was first found in Titusville, Pa., in 1859, an expansive and ever-growing territory that spanned a whole continent, and a sense of “American exceptionalism,” was the successor to the British empire, reaching 19 percent of global economic output in 1913, at the verge of World War I, and 35 percent at the height of World War II. The United States is now about 20 percent of the global economy, its share shrinking as other nations grow rapidly. The United States’ historical wealth of oil, coal and natural gas allowed it to grow to such a dominant economic and military position that it is truly deserving of being called an empire.

See Noozhawk for the rest of this piece.

Am Embarrassment of Riches

Renewable energy is taking off in many places around the world. Growth rates of 30-50% in wind and solar have been the norm for the last decade in the US and around the world. Unfortunately, California has been stuck in neutral when it comes to wholesale renewables, relinquishing its early lead in the global renewable energy race.

The nations that have led the way on renewable energy in the last decade have used robust “feed-in tariffs” to create entire new industries. The litany is familiar to those in the renewable energy business: Germany, Italy, Spain, Ontario (a province in Canada) and now China. These five regions have all seen growth go from low levels to record levels practically overnight right after they started requiring that utilities buy power at a set price from third party developers of wind, solar and other renewables.

A sixth jurisdiction is less well-known: California. But not the California we live in now. Rather, the California that created a robust feed-in tariff in the 1980s under the federal Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA). Under PURPA, California faced an “embarrassment of riches” in terms of renewable energy projects coming online, as the Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) described it at the time.

The large majority of wind and solar projects online today in California came online in the 1980s and 1990s under PURPA. Since PURPA was effectively gutted in the early 1990s, due to declining fossil fuel prices and tax policy changes, California has seen very little wholesale renewable energy come online. The current system, the Renewables Portfolio Standard (SB 1078 and SB 107), started in 2003 and has resulted in a tiny amount of new renewable energy development since then. All three of California’s big investor-owned utilities will fail to meet the current 20% by 2010 mandate for renewables and have, in fact, slid backwards in terms of their renewable energy percentages since the start of this policy

See here for the rest of this article.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Debate That Will Shape America's Future

The Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster, the Massey, West Virginia coal mine accident, the Tennessee coal ash disaster in 2008, the BP oil refinery disaster in Texas in 2006, and countless other fossil fuel disasters are finally having an effect on public opinion. And the sting of record prices from 2008 is still in the recent memory of American consumers. Fully 2/3 of Americans believe Congress needs to make our country's energy needs a top priority.

Recent polls have found, however, that a shrinking portion of America believes that climate change is a human-caused problem or that we need to take serious action to mitigate climate change. A May, 2010, poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that only 32% of Americans thought that climate change should be a “top priority” for Congress (see chart, below).

This is the debate, revolving around energy and climate change, that will define America’s future. It is not the only debate that will do so, but I believe it is the most important debate we will have over the coming decades.

Read the rest at www.renewableenergyworld.com

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Dan Dennett Is a Panpsychist

Daniel Dennett is a panpsychist. He wouldn’t admit it in public, and he might not even realize it. Yet Dennett, one of the foremost materialists in the early part of the 21st century, advocates views regarding consciousness, biology, and philosophy that unavoidably lead to that most ridiculous of philosophical views: that all things have some degree of consciousness, otherwise known as panpsychism.

For those who don’t know, Dan Dennett is a professor of philosophy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. I had the good fortune of meeting Dennett recently and found that he is in fact a very pleasant man, courteous, and with a great sense of humor.

Dennett has written numerous books, including, most recently, Breaking the Spell, an anti-religion screed that places him firmly among the “new atheists” school of thought. The new atheists, which include Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and others, take as their primary target the traditional view of God as a creator and patriarch who exercises an ongoing role in his creation. This traditional view, known as theism, is quite hard to defend for anyone who has scientific or philosophical training. But Dennett and the rest of the new atheists go too far, in my view, in rejecting most notions of divinity as part and parcel of their rejection of traditional religion.

See the rest of this piece here.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Exotics and the March of Technology

And now for the good news…. Those of you who read my columns may have noticed that while I'm generally optimistic I do tend to worry a lot about the big scary issues. In this piece I'm going to take a break from worrying and indulge in some unfettered technophilia.

Like most Gen X males, I’m into my gadgets. I follow new technologies pretty closely and when I can afford it I indulge in some cool toys like the latest smartphone or computer, etc. In the renewable energy field, there are a number of cool gadgets either already here or in development that should give us all some real hope for the future — a class of renewable energy technologies I call “exotics.”

The key trend for exotics is the improvement of information technology and its associated computing power. Moore’s Law — the rule that computing power doubles about every two years — is akin to magic when we ponder the fact that in the 60 years since Moore’s Law was formulated we have increased computing power by a factor of one trillion (2 to the 30th power)! This kind of computing power allows for an increasing control over our environment, or, at least, important parts of it. And this is just what the new exotics do.

Read the rest at Renewable Energy World

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Was Jesus a Hindu?

A recent piece I wrote on Cameron's new movie, Avatar, inspired an indignant response from a reader, decrying my suggestion that Christ's teachings are compatible with the idea that we are all, each of us, God. Rather than write a full response here now, I'm going to be a little lazy and link to someone else who wrote a great response. And see below for more from Alan Watts, who inspired the below writer's thoughts.

Chris Watson's thoughts on John: 10.

Alan Watts was an amazing teacher and scholar. See here for one of his many very illuminating lectures. And check iTunes podcasts for more of Alan Watts.

Is the Magically Deflating Oil Price All About Speculation?

I wrote this piece in 2009 when oil prices were very low. As oil prices continue to rise - perhaps back to their historic highs in mid-2008 - it's worth pondering these thoughts again. I think prices will in fact rise far higher than the 2008 levels by 2012 or so, but the timing depends very much on the timing of the recovery of the global economy. The bottomline is that the structural problems in the global oil supply system are still there, just masked by the global recession.

Question: Are speculators and Enron ex-employees behind oil price turbulence, as 60 Minutes recently asserted? Answer: No.

That line alone would be a tad short for an op-ed, so let me explain. 60 Minutes, the most popular and respected newsmagazine on television, devoted a segment on January 11 to dramatically declining oil prices. The show gave airtime to many commentators, all of whom argued strongly that the key factor in the run up of oil prices in the first half of 2008, and the precipitous decline since then, was oil market speculation. There was even a brief discussion of Enron's erstwhile employees and their continuing role in energy markets. The implication was that there may yet turn out to be some malfeasance in the oil price gyrations over the last few years.

60 Minutes opened the piece with a disclaimer about the complexity of the forces behind oil price movements. But then the show spent 15 minutes painting a very one-sided story about the reasons for oil price movements, with not a single dissenting view presented.

I agree that oil markets are highly complex. And I agree that at this point literally no one knows the full answer as to why markets have been on such a wild ride. But the sketch provided by 60 Minutes is only half the story, at best. The more complete analysis takes into account the fact that prices have been driven as much by supply and demand, and the perception of supply and demand, as by speculation. I'll unpack this statement below.

Read the rest at Energy Pulse.

We Are All Environmentalists Now

I wrote this piece in April of 2009, but it's still timely.

It’s about time. Yes, it’s about time the mainstream of America joined this party. For decades now, self-identified environmentalists have constituted about 20 percent of the population. Whether it’s due to reticence to label ourselves, or being turned off by the more extreme type of environmentalism, for some reason most Americans have not described themselves as environmentalists.

So what’s changed? Well, awareness is changing — which leads to behavior change. So even if people don’t want to label themselves as environmentalists, most of us are now acting like environmentalists. There’s a new paradigm in town and this paradigm is serious. (OK, sometimes a bit too serious.) I’m talking about concerns about climate change, of course. For most Americans, the debate over the need to take action on climate change is over. Our very own Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said in 2006: “We know the science. The debate is over.” And it’s heartening to see that even those who don’t agree with particular plans, like those presented by Schwarzenegger or President Obama’s cap-and-trade proposal, aren’t offering criticism on the grounds that we shouldn’t be doing anything. Rather, they’re criticizing these plans on the grounds that they’re the wrong remedy or will cost too much, etc. This shift in approach is in itself a sea change.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

Have Computer, Will Vote

I wrote this piece a year ago, but it's definitely still timely - we REALLY need an improvement in our system of democratic governance.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
— Winston Churchill, 1947

Democracy does indeed have its drawbacks and we can identify two broad themes: Failures as a result of the influence of powerful and moneyed interests on elected officials and failures as a result of the fear that choices by elected officials will not be easily explained to an electorate that has little time or attention for nuance. The cure for democracy’s failings, however, is not less democracy, but more direct democracy, empowering individuals through increased knowledge and new technology.

Public financing of all political competitions would go a long way toward fixing the first problem. Publicly financed candidates receive money from a common fund after passing muster as legitimate candidates. For example, candidates in some jurisdictions that have publicly financed elections must collect a required number of signatures or a required number of very small donations. Public financing relieves candidates of the pressure to collect money from the usual sources, such as wealthy individuals, corporations or unions, freeing them from implicit or explicit “strings” that come with such contributions.

Public financing is making slow progress in the United States, with states like Arizona and Maine ahead of the curve. The experience of these states has been very positive and the public financing movement is catching on elsewhere.

Surprisingly, California is far behind the curve, only recently passing into law a very limited public finance pilot program that will kick in by 2014, if it is approved by voters in a ballot initiative in 2010. We can do far better.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

Where Are the Local Stimulus Packages?

I wrote this piece almost exactly a year ago, but it's still very timely.

Add California to the list of states that "see renewable energy as their future," as the LA Times reported earlier this month. Our employment figures are down on a net basis, but renewable energy and energy efficiency remain bright spots in an otherwise maudlin economy.

"Some states — including Michigan — already see renewable energy as their future: It's the only sector that appears to be making room for more employees despite the recession." Los Angeles Times, January 4, 2009.

With President Obama now inaugurated and many states already working on climate change mitigation plans, 2009 will be the year to turn the rhetoric of the green energy revolution into reality. He stated on the campaign trail: "Breaking our oil addiction . . . is going to take nothing less than the complete transformation of our economy."

Now he's doing more than talk; he has already presented his stimulus package to Congress, calling for over US $800 billion in tax cuts and incentives for infrastructure and — most importantly, from my perspective — US $15 billion in various incentives for renewable energy, better transportation and energy efficiency. Obama has said repeatedly that the need for action on climate change and energy independence is urgent. And he recognizes that strong action to mitigate these problems will also provide a substantial boost to our economy, helping to address the current economic slump.

By my count, that's at least three birds with one stone: climate change, energy independence and a major boost to the economy.

The obvious follow up question: if this equation holds true at the federal level, why not at the state and local levels? A clear difference between the federal, state and local levels is that authority to exceed budget limits in any given year is more restricted for state and local governments than it is for the federal government. But there are many ways to follow Obama's lead without breaking state and local coffers, even on a temporary basis.

Read the rest at Renewable Energy World.

A Call to Action on Peak Oil

This is a piece Walter Kohn (Nobel Prize for Chemistry, UC Santa Barbara) and I wrote in June of 2009. It's message is even more timely than ever.

We are being lulled to sleep by temporarily low oil prices caused by the global financial crisis. In fact, low prices may lead to an increased level of consumption and accelerated exhaustion of oil reserves.

“Peak oil,” the point at which global oil production peaks and then rapidly declines, is still not sufficiently on the minds of the American public and policymakers. We don’t know exactly when peak oil will arrive, but it is very likely to occur within ten to twenty years. Some say that it may even be here now – the US Army Corps of Engineers, for example, wrote in a 2005 report: “We are at or near a peak in global oil production.” Peak oil should be at the forefront of everyone's mind – here’s why:

As soon as the global economy recovers, we can expect oil and other fossil fuel prices to shoot right back to where they were last summer, and probably far higher. The International Energy Agency (IEA), formed in the 1970s to act as an energy watchdog for western nations, stated in its 2008 World Energy Outlook:

Current global trends in energy supply and consumption are patently unsustainable …The future of human prosperity depends on how successfully we tackle the two central energy challenges facing us today: securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy; and effecting a rapid transformation to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign system of energy supply.

This is a call to action of the most urgent kind and we dare not ignore it.

Read the rest at Renewable Energy World.

Obama's Bush-Lite Foreign Policy Agenda

After nearly a year in office for President Barack Obama, we are now in a position to fairly judge his direction on foreign policy.

We can’t entirely separate this analysis from domestic policy, which obviously has taken up the majority of our new president’s time. But nor can a fair-minded observer dismiss any perceived shortcomings in foreign policy by simply invoking our ongoing domestic difficulties.

The question: Has Obama been the transformational figure he promised to be? As a longtime observer of foreign affairs, and as a former military man (U.S. Army, 1990-94), I’m forced to conclude that the answer is a resounding no. Obama has generally followed George W. Bush’s foreign policy agenda, in action if not in rhetoric or tone.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

The Nobel Peace Prize Speech Obama Should Have Given in Oslo

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Citizens of America, and Citizens of the World:

I receive this honor with deep gratitude and great humility. It is an award that speaks to our highest aspirations — that for all the cruelty and hardship of our world, we are not mere prisoners of fate. Our actions matter, and can bend history in the direction of justice.

Justice and peace are irrevocably intertwined. Some would say they are synonymous. Too often in practice they are not, because of the imbalances of power that prevail in the world today. All informed and conscientious people would agree that peace is the preferred state of affairs, within nations and between nations. Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the fact that we, as human beings, come from an often brutish past, vestiges of a time when nature was indeed red in tooth and claw.

But times change. And people change. I stand before you, and the world, as a testament to change. I stand before you as a testament to the nonviolent struggles of my forefathers. It is only through the tireless, loving and peaceful actions of the civil rights movement in America and other countries that I could have earned the privilege to lead the world’s last remaining superpower. I will not — I cannot — forget the debts I owe to those who preceded me.

Read the rest at Noozhawk.

The Duality of Hope

Greg Mortensen attempted to climb K2 in 1993, one of the highest and most dangerous mountains in the world. He failed and almost died in the process. Stumbling down from the mountain, he was rescued by impoverished Pakistani villagers who nursed him back to health despite their meager means. Mortensen was so inspired by his benefactors that he wrote a book about his experience, Three Cups of Tea, and started a non-profit organization upon his return to the U.S. His organization has now built over 130 schools in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Mongolia.

Mortensen's Central Asia Institute is among the ranks of hundreds of thousands of "non-governmental organizations" (NGOs) that have sprung up around the world over the last century. NGOs are more commonly called "non-profit organizations" or "civil society." The Salvation Army is an NGO, as is the Sierra Club. This sector of our society, still little understood by most people, collectively forms the eighth largest economy in the world, employs over 19 million people, and spends more on international development than the World Bank. It is clearly a major force for change.

Read the rest at Santa Barbara's Independent.

The Decade of Climate Change and Peak Oil

Wow. Another decade has passed. In the years ruled by the iPod, the death and rebirth of hope (you know who I’m talking about), Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong and Roger Federer, reality TV, Coldplay and Britney, flat-screen TVs and ShamWow!, climate change and energy may seem a relatively small blip on the cultural big screen.

It is true that on a list of 20 issues presented to the American people in a 2009 Pew survey, climate change came in dead last. But this is a mistake of perception and judgment. These issues really should be at the top of the list; even above the ailing economy (No. 1 on the list) because the economy is a subset of the environment, not the other way around.

Read the rest at Renewable Energy World.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Avatar, blue skin and the ground of being

Online at Noozhawk

A recent New York Times columnist described Jim Cameron’s latest blockbuster, Avatar, as a “long apologia for pantheism.” This is, we learn as we read further, a bad thing. Pantheism is the notion that the entire universe is God. Pantheism is generally relegated by modern theologians and scholars to an earlier, less advanced, stage of humanity, with a less well-developed notion of divinity. But the Na’vi people of Avatar’s moon known as Pandora may well hold the more accurate – and ultimately more helpful – notion of divinity after all.

Theism is the, since the days of Thomas Aquinas, the basis for most of Christian faith (though what defines Christian faith in the many hundreds of different Christian traditions is itself rather hard to pin down). Aquinas was a 13th Century Italian monk who wrote the authoritative text for Christianity in his era, Summa Theologica. This work remains highly influential today. The basic tenets of traditional theism hold that there is one God and the universe is His creation. God and the universe are separate. God is eternal and uncreated. The universe is created and will one day end – rather soon, according to some of the more fiery theologians.

Pantheism, to the contrary, holds that God and the universe are one: it’s all the same stuff. Pantheism doesn’t necessarily require that there be only one god, and the more “primitive” versions of pantheism view the world as containing a multiplicity of gods. Einstein, not exactly an intellectual scrub, subscribed to Spinoza’s pantheistic God. Spinoza, a 17th Century Dutch Jew, stated that “matter and soul are the outside and inside aspects, or attributes, of one and the same thing in itself …; that is to say, of ‘Nature, which is the same as God.’” (Spinoza’s Ethics, 1677).

As with most things in real life, there are more than two flavors possible. In this case, in between traditional theism and pantheism is panentheism, described by one scholar as “the god of the philosophers.” Panentheism – the extra “en” being very important – holds that the universe is within God but not identical with God. So all of the universe is God, but God transcends the physical universe. Modern proponents of panentheism include the British philosopher and physicist Alfred North Whitehead, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Hartshorne. And of course Hinduism has taught a version of panentheism for many thousands of years, based on the Vedas and Upanishads, which were first written about 1800 BCE. In Hinduism, Brahman is the ultimate ground of being, what some describe as God.

This takes us back to Avatar’s blue-skinned Na’vi. Cameron’s epic depicts a far-flung moon inhabited by a humanoid race that enjoys a tight bond with nature. This bond can at times be physical, due to a bio-psychic link that allows the Na’vi to literally connect with the global living network they describe as Eywa by using open nerve endings at the end of their long ponytails. Eywa, a global network consisting of all life on Pandora, is a clear parallel to Hinduism’s Brahman. Brahman is the source of all things. It is the soil from which every other thing grows.

And the Na’vi’s blue skin is a clear parallel to Krishna, Hinduism’s Christ-like figure. Krishna is always depicted with blue skin. Krishna stars in such epics as the Bhagavad Gita, one of the primary books of the Hindu tradition. The third indication that Cameron intentionally mirrored Hindu teachings is the name of the movie itself. In Hinduism, an avatar is an earthly incarnation of a god, such as Krishna.

We realize, then, that Avatar does not really describe pantheism; rather, it describes a panENtheistic way of life, made very real for its people due to the actual physical connections the Na’vi enjoy with Eywa.

Avatar, as with all movies, is a metaphor. The metaphor in this case is complex and of course open to interpretation. My personal interpretation is that the Na’vi’s ability to interconnect with Eywa and download the collective wisdom of all life on Pandora is a metaphor for every human’s ability to connect with the ground of being and enjoy that same kind of wisdom.

Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist who decried Avatar’s alleged pantheism, apparently disapproves of Avatar’s religious message, based on his conclusion that this message contradicts Christian teachings. This, however, misses the true meaning of Jesus’ life and message. Interpreting exactly what Jesus’ life and message really were, however, is a veritable cottage industry in this new millennium. Two recent books have been helpful for me in gaining a better understanding of Jesus and situating his teachings within the broader context of universal spiritual truth: Deepak Chopra’s The Third Jesus and Bart Ehrman’s Jesus, Interrupted.

These books and many others demonstrate that we may accurately interpret Jesus’ teachings as harmonious with the Hindu teachings of Brahman and Atman. Jesus claimed to be God, according to the Gospel of John (interestingly, the only gospel that contains this teaching). Jesus’ claim was considered heretical by not only the Jewish authorities of his day, but also the Roman oppressors. For this and other crimes, he was crucified.

To a Hindu, however, the realization that each of us is God is greeted with a hearty congratulations – “welcome to reality!” This is the case because the core teaching of Hinduism – particularly the Vedanta tradition – is that not only is Brahman the ground of being for all things, but that all things constitute a non-dual oneness. It’s all just one thing. And when we realize that it’s all just one thing, we realize also that we are that one thing. I am the universe, you are the universe, we are the universe. I am God, you are God, we are God.

For Jesus to say he is God is not, then, such a stretch. In fact, it becomes rather pedestrian. But it is a pedestrian truth that all of us should internalize and live, each day. Paul Tillich, a 20th Century German theologian, has written extensively on a similar interpretation of Christian faith.

When we realize that all other people are in fact just pieces of the grand oneness that is us, Brahman, the ground of being, it becomes a lot harder to treat each other inhumanely. And the same realization leads to a renewed reverence for the natural world – because the natural world is just another manifestation of our true identity, the entire universe. And this is, ultimately, a very Christian teaching.

Tam Hunt is a Santa Barbara attorney.