The Moral Molecule


Creator(s): Department of Defense. Department of the Army. Office of the Chief Signal Officer. (09/18/1947 – 02/28/1964)

Persistent URL: arcweb.archives.gov/arc/action/ExternalIdSearch?id=531280

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Suffering…what is it good for?


Evil causes suffering and evil is preventable, but even in a paradisiacal world without evil, suffering would still exist.

In the most wonderful and peaceful of worlds, completely free of war and violence and famine and prejudice, children will still die and be bereaved, people will become ill and have accidents, make mistakes – there will be natural disasters and unfortunate events. Suffering will still exist.

So.  What is the point of suffering?

Viktor Frankl, concentration camp survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said that suffering should be alleviated whenever possible but when it isn’t possible it presents us with an opportunity for change.

When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves. (1)

What does this mean?  Perhaps it means that suffering changes us anyway and we can either be a part of that change or allow ourselves to be formed against our will by circumstances outside of our control?

The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes. The more you cut the branches of a tree the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts. Therefore, the more sorrows one sees the more perfect one becomes…Strange it is that I love you and still I am happy that you have sorrows. (2)

Maybe the purpose of suffering is so incredibly individual that there is no one answer other than that its very inevitability suggests it does have a purpose – however hidden?

Maybe it exists so that we’ll question the things around us that seem real and permanent and important and learn to distinguish between them?

Maybe our suffering can soften our hearts so that when we see others suffer we respond?

I don’t presume to know.

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(1) Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search For Meaning.

(2) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, published in “Star of the West”, volume 14, number 2, May 1923.

Chaotic Butterflies


Photograph of David Bohm, taken from this page.

David Bohm

In ordinary life chaos means disorder – random, disorganised confusion.  In science it means something entirely different – it means apparent randomness. In other words, things that appear to be random and disorganised but actually obey an order that we either can’t see or don’t understand.

The physicist, David Bohm believed everything was governed by a hidden – or as he termed it – implicate – order.  He demonstrated this using a very simple but graphic experiment copied from a BBC Children’s TV programme.

Take a vessel composed of two glass cylinders, put glycerine (or other viscous fluid) in the space between the cylinders, then put a drop of insoluble ink into the glycerine and turn the outer cylinder.  As the cylinder turns, the ink is drawn out into a thread that eventually becomes so thin it disappears from view as it is enfolded in the solution.

But if the cylinder is then turned in the opposite direction, the thread form reappears and retraces its steps until the original droplet is reconstituted.

Bohm offered this as a visual example of how order exists even when it is hidden and not obvious to us.

But David Bohm is far from the only scientist to suggest that the seeming ‘chaos’ that surrounds us may not be as haphazard as it appears.

In the 1960s, Edward Lorenz, a MIT meteorologist and the originator of the Butterfly Effect theory, tried to explore why it is so hard to make good weather forecasts and as a result chaos theory was born.  Lorenz was the first to recognize what is now called chaotic behaviour in the mathematical modelling of weather systems.

Soon, many other scientists – including social scientists – were attempting to use chaos theory to search for the hidden order in everything.

Nowadays, chaos theory (and it’s offspring, complexity theory) provides us with models we can apply to everything from epilepsy to social problems.

So, organised chaos is not a contradiction after all – who knew?

Humility and Learning


The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates - 1787 - Jacques Louis David

I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing. Socrates – in Plato’s Apology.

It is important that we constantly try to gain all the knowledge we can about the world. Ironically, though, we can only do this if we are open to the fact that we will never reach a place where we know everything.

Any knowledge we have – no matter how good – is not all the knowledge that exists – even about the obviously ‘real’ objects.

Less than a hundred years ago we had no concept of the behaviour of physical matter at a quantum (i.e. very, very, very microscopic) level and yet we now know about it and realise that even before we discovered it, there was still a quantum level of reality.

The most useful model of the acquisition of knowledge is to see it as a never ending ladder reaching towards truth of all types.  This model acknowledges that each rung on the ladder is a necessary step as we climb and also, that above us there are further rungs waiting to be reached.

So hand in hand with our excitement at whatever it is that we learn or discover, we must train ourselves in a real humility before all that we don’t yet understand.  If we don’t do this we will comfortably take up residence on a rung of the ladder and stop making progress.  On the other hand, if we do combine humility and learning, we will constantly try to ascend the ladder to reach greater and greater heights.

Selflessness


Truman's future Vice President Alben W. Barkle...

Future US Vice President, Alben W. Barkley, visits Buchenwald, shortly after its liberation in 1945.

You can’t forget what you don’t know.  Take driving as an example. When you become a confident and competent driver you’re no longer conscious of every single thing you do as you drive – in effect you ‘forget’ you are driving.  But it is essential for you to really know how to drive before this forgetting can happen.

So perhaps we can only forget ourselves after we know ourselves.  Nowadays we think of self-knowledge as all affirmations and positivity.  This isn’t necessarily all that there is to knowing yourself.

Regardless of what we think we might do if we lived in Nazi Germany – or any other repressive regime – statistically the chances are that we would, at best, be part of the silent majority who let evil flourish.

So what part of yourself might facilitate this?  What part of me?

In his many lectures, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, suggests that we look at ourselves until we can work out our dark side because this knowledge will make us careful of how we act in the world.  His hypothesis is that when we know we are dealing with a loaded weapon rather than some ineffectual feather-duster, this will help us to achieve the great good we are all also capable of achieving. (1)

Self-mastery is only possible through self-knowledge, so perhaps if we are also interested in being selfless as well as being in control of ourselves, then perhaps we must first have a good understanding of who we really are and how we really work.

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Search For Truth


The School of Athens (detail). Fresco, Stanza ...

In Plato‘s Republic, he asks us to imagine a Cave in which prisoners live from birth. These prisoners are chained in such a way that they can’t move their heads or bodies, therefore they all face the same direction. Behind them is a screen and behind that is a fire.

The prison guards move about behind the screen and the fire casts their shadows on the wall in front of the prisoners.  This is their reality.

Plato then asks us to imagine what would happen if one of these prisoners was released. This man would first find it difficult to look at the fire in the Cave behind him. But this difficulty would be nothing compared to what would happen if he was dragged above the ground, where he would be completely blinded by the natural light.

But gradually, the released prisoner would be able to look at shadows, then reflections, then objects themselves.  After that he’d be able to bear looking at the sky at night and finally – once he’d developed an ability to see – he’d be able to look at the day-time sky and the sun itself.

This famous Simile can be interpreted in many ways but one of the most useful is to see it as a description of the search for truth.

It’s a hard job this quest. It definitely requires us to move and often to be uncomfortable.  It’s easier to stay where we are and not bother looking for the reality of things. Plato refutes the idea that real knowledge can be planted in a human mind and instead suggests that it can only be acquired by making the effort to acquire it for yourself.  Because, according to Plato,

…the capacity for knowledge is innate in each man’s mind.(1)

But also – according to Plato – getting access to this knowledge within us requires a voluntary turn towards truth.

In other words – come on out of the Cave – it’s sunny outside and who knows what wonders you’ll see if you make the effort to search for truth yourself?

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(1) The Republic, Plato (To read The Simile of the Cave itself, click on More About…)

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What Everybody Needs to Know About Thinking for Yourself


Thinking for yourself is not about following every whimsical notion and desire and doing just as you please.

Thinking for yourself means doing your utmost to work out how you should act and then being willing to take responsibility for those actions.

We need to learn how to take in information – including the opinions and views of others – process this information and then apply it.  This is thinking for oneself.

In the past it was hard to access information – now the opposite is true.  Now the challenge is learning to think so that information can be translated into knowledge. Now everyone is both entitled and required to contribute to the generation and application of knowledge.

What everybody needs to know about thinking is that it’s no longer someone else’s job so, it really is time we all learned to truly think for ourselves.

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Photograph – Rural school children, San Augustine County, Texas, USA. Library of Congress collection – – http://www.flickr.com/x/t/0093009/photos/library_of_congress/2179121471/

Why We All Need Science and Religion to Work Together (even if we think we don’t)


Objective knowledge provides us with powerful instruments for the achievements of certain ends, but the ultimate goal itself and the longing to reach it must come from another source. Albert Einstein (1)

Everyone would agree that we are material beings but we also know that much of our experience of life is not material.  We love, hate, imagine, dream, think, guess, wish, hypothesize – and there is no one way to explain it all. Along with our material reality we have another reality – a transcendent reality. Which is why we need as many paths to knowledge as we can get.

Because, as Albert Einstein also famously said –

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind. (2)

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Photograph – A glowing emerald nebula seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

(1) This article appears in Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions, pp.41 – 49. It is taken from an address at Princeton Theological Seminary, May 19, 1939. It was published in Out of My Later Years, New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

(2) Albert Einstein“Science, Philosophy and Religion: a Symposium”, 1941

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The Laughter of the Gods


Plato's Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873)

Plato's Symposium (Anselm Feuerbach, 1873)

Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods. (1)

Knowledge is a slippery customer.  History has shown us that progress requires us not only to investigate the world but also to approach this investigation with humility.  This humility is born of the realisation that knowledge is like a ladder and while we may be definitely resting on a real rung of that ladder, there are still countless rungs above us and out of our view.

Not Visible versus Non Existent

Even the physical universe can be difficult to truly ‘know’.  Sometimes we are unable to see a phenomenon itself – even with instruments – but we can see its effects. For example,

Electrons and other sub-atomic particles are too small to be observed directly, but physicists are able to infer their properties from the tracks they leave on photographic plates. (2)

If we have such difficulty with physical phenomena that can be relatively easily proven to exist at the very least, then what about human realities such as love and hope and sadness and courage and fear and faith?

We can now ‘prove’ the existence of emotions using sophisticated machinery but even so, we cannot, truly examine their reality with machinery. A brain-image of an emotion – let’s say fear – can show the parts of the brain involved but it cannot describe in any detail the exact nature of the individual’s fear or say what is causing it or why.

But everybody who has ever experienced a strong emotion like love or fear or anger or joy knows these emotions really do exist. So, what exactly is reality? Are the objects that we can see and feel and weigh and measure the only reality? If so, what about other objects that we haven’t discovered yet but will discover in the future – such as far away planets – are they not real? Do they only become real when we discover them?

It really does seem to be the case that – He, O men, is the wisest who, like Socrates, knows his wisdom is in truth worth nothing. (3)

TomorrowUnique Reality and the Unique Self

(1) Attributed to Albert Einstein

(2) Andre Kukla and Joel Walmsley, Mind – A Historical and Philosophical Introduction to the Major Theories, p.31

(3) PlatoThe Apology, (22d-e), The Last Days of SocratesPenguin Classics.