Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Social Studies

Spring has arrived and I've been busy outside gardening incompetently. We've got a rain deficit, but today it rained which gave me an excuse not to work outside. In theory this allows me time to blog, but I've been putting it off.

Part of the problem about writing is I know what I'm writing is of little interest to anyone. The reason for writing is to explore various contrary ideas. One of those ideas is "Religion can be a powerful force for good in the world." That idea resonates with me, although I've got big problems with the ways the force of religion are playing out in the world for the worse.

I also have a hunch that Buddhist economics has something important to offer the study of economics. I'm no scholar! My hunch seems to follow the trail Karl Polanyi blazed with the insistence that economics are embedded in societies and cultures. Karl Polanyi contrasted two views of economics: the neoclassical and what he termed the substantive meaning of economics. It's this latter meaning, of a livelihood strategy, of most interest to me.

Meanwhile I'm all over the place in my thinking and am not sure what to do except ramble along.

That's a screenshot of a episode featuring Carl Zimmer and Paul Ehrlich on the subject of Cultural Evolution. I wrote a grumpy piece in July about Ehrlich's ideas about cultural evolution. I've got to admit that seeing Ehrlich on video makes it hard for me to be cross. I very much agree with the sense of urgency he feels about humanity's prospects. But I still think the metaphor of cultural evolution confuses more than it illuminates.

Ehrlich thinks people need to change behaviors, and quickly, if humanity is to survive. Who isn't feeling the sense of urgency about the crises which confront us? Clearly science, that is the practice of reasoned arguments coupled with careful practical observations of the world, has much to offer as a way toward solutions.

The conduct of science is embedded in society and culture too and there are some blind spots. It seems to me that Ehrlich presumes social and behavioral sciences address haven't met with the same sort of progress as natural sciences have is a result of social scientists being insufficiently scientific. I don't agree with that assessment entirely. But mostly it's his apparent view of "culture" as some physical entity which seems most off base.

I agree we need to change, but how to is the question. I think social and behavioral sciences are immature sciences, but even still the work of social sciences finds its way incorporated into various technologies. Like the discoveries in the natural sciences leading to technological applications having polluting and antisocial effect; eg. nuclear bombs, the application of social sciences is hardly all good.

Public relations is a suspect field and the career of Edward Bernays, one of founding fathers of the field, provides clear examples of how social science research is applied. If change is needed, it is well to examine propaganda and the relationship between it and social studies.

A couple of Sunday's ago one the Pittsburgh Post Gazette's conservative mouth pieces, Jack Kelly wrote a column, Democrats unleash the attack dogs: But they picked the wrong target in Rush Limbaugh. Jack Kelly's columns tend to annoy me, and I suppose that's a reason I read them. The lede:
Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, Rick Santelli and Jim Cramer owe much of their 15 minutes of fame to Saul Alinsky, a Chicago Marxist who died in 1972.
made me scratch my head. Saul Alinsky a Marxist? I'd never heard that before and I wondered whether Kelly was right.

Searching online provides plenty of hits to conservatives calling Alinsky a Marxist. But there is much in Alinsky's career that would suggest otherwise. Here's what Alinsky said himself in a Playboy interview in 1972:
PLAYBOY: Did you consider becoming a party member prior to the Nazi-Soviet Pact?

ALINSKY: Not at any time. I've never joined any organization -- not even the ones I've organized myself. I prize my own independence too much. And philosophically, I could never accept any rigid dogma or ideology, whether it's Christianity or Marxism. One of the most important things in life is what judge Learned Hand described as "that ever-gnawing inner doubt as to whether you're right." If you don't have that, if you think you've got an inside track to absolute truth, you become doctrinaire, humorless and intellectually constipated. The greatest crimes in history have been perpetrated by such religious and political and racial fanatics, from the persecutions of the Inquisition on down to Communist purges and Nazi genocide.

...My only fixed truth is a belief in people, a conviction that if people have the opportunity to act freely and the power to control their own destinies, they'll generally reach the right decisions. The only alternative to that belief is rule by an elite, whether it's a Communist bureaucracy or our own present-day corporate establishment. You should never have an ideology more specific than that of the founding fathers: "For the general welfare." That's where I parted company with the Communists in the Thirties, and that's where I stay parted from them today.
The line that Alinsky was a Marxist is parroted all over in American media. It's easy to imagine that person might wrongly conclude that the author of a book named Rules for Radicals was a Marxist. But it stretches the imagination to the breaking point to think that the numerous examples of "Alinsky was a Marxist" in the rightest media is a mistake. Rather it seems transparently a propaganda ploy.

I've become very fond of posts at Religion Dispatches. Yesterday there was a post by Hussein Rashid Osama and Orientalism: Where Islamophobes Meet Al-Qaeda. The article made me think about what's going on with the Alinsky = Marxist meme on right wing media sites. Rashid writes:
When Islamophobes want to demonize Islam, it is easy enough to take a passage from scripture and extrapolate all sorts of general ideas about how Muslims act, what they believe, or who they are in some fundamental way.
Rashid also presents a concise exposition about how Edward Said's ideas of Orientalism operate in America. I risk going way off track going into the post in detail, but the post is worth reading. Having brought up Edward Said's name it's fair to point out that Said was a frequent target of the same rightist factions who make Alinsky out to be a Marxist. What is relevant here is the sort of hermeneutic technique Rashid points to. Alinsky's writing certainly isn't scripture, but a similar technique is applied to his writing in order to prove he was a Marxist.

Oh crikey! I've got about a dozen pages open in tabs from sites like FreeRepublic, FrontPage Magazine, The Eagle Fourm, and various sites they link to. I'm trying to figure which ones best demonstrate my thesis. There are so many pages it's hard to pick! What many pages have in common is to posit deception on Alinsky's part, to say that his words are a sort of code. This article by John Perazzo illustrates this technique. Melanie Phillips at the British magazine The Spectator quotes Perazzo's article extensively in order to substantiate her thesis:
[I]n the world of Barack Obama, community organisers are a key strategy in a different game altogether; and the name of that game is revolutionary Marxism.
Part of the charm of a British publication, even a conservative one, is that articles like Phillips get some push back, something American-based conservative outlets prevent.

One commenter, AnotherPerspective, remarks:
Melanie, you have a remarkable talent.Linking Obama, Alinsky, and Marxism with so little effort or apparent embarassment. Perhaps next you could link good and evil, darkness and light, heaven and hell, intelligence and stupidity.
I'm no Marxist. A big part of that has to do with a philosophical difficulties with rigid ideologies, a position similar to Alinsky's. A part of it too is not really having the fortitude to be rigorous. Alinsky is long dead, and using his "Marxism" to tar Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as "Marxists" isn't convincing. There's another problem with it, and that's how is skews informed comment about Marxism in American discourse.

Public Relations and propaganda surely do influence people, and that influence is measured by changes in behavior. It's not satisfying to think that propaganda is just a tool which can be used for good or ill. In my prescription of the way the world ought to be, reason seems more virtuous. So it's ironic that one area of "successful" application of knowledge created by social science are "killer" propaganda and PR techniques.

Of course the Internet changes things. Recently I saw a page commenting on the influence of paid links on search engine results pages. The example used to illustrate is fascinating. After the World Trade Tower attack, it was revealed there were large put options taken out the day before the attack. Authorities thought these transactions anomalous. I heard about them at the time, but the issue seemed to fade into the woodwork. Apparently Mayo Shattuck III the head of A.B. Brown unit of Deutsche bank at the time grew sick of seeing his name come up in search results and hired reputation managers to improve the situation.

The Irish Elk is a species of deer that went extinct about 11,000 years ago. An enormous species, skeletal remains have antlers as long as twelve feet across. The consensus reason for the evolution of the trait is as a process of sexual selection. The big honking antlers conferred a mating advantage.

I've already said I'm not very comfortable with Ehrlich's cultural evolution project. I think cultural evolution makes sense only as a metaphor. But as a metaphor might social change driven by propaganda bear some formal resemblance to sexual selection in evolutionary biology? I doubt it. Here's another throw away question: What sort of designer would put a twelve foot long, eighty pound head rack on a deer? Ehrlich's urgency to understand cultural evolution, at root it seems is a call for technologies of social change. The current state of the art doesn't give me a good feeling about this project.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


I posts pictures out of habit. What sort of picture to portray "concord?" This picture might better depict "discord." It's a picture of my nephew's dog at my fountain--I've never hooked it up to spout water. I laugh at it because dog visitors here always check out the lion face, and some bark wildly at it. (You can click on the photo to see it larger.) It's always puzzled me that dogs take offense. This dog seems more curious than disturbed.

It's awful: I've got something in mind to say, but know full well what I've got to say isn't very well put together. Anyhow, I'm thinking of concord as it applies to science and religion. More particularly how representatives of various religions might find concord in approaches to responding to our ecological crisis. In the background to this is also the quest for concord among my religious friends and me.

In my last posts I've been leading up to questions of epistemology and ontology. For many reasons traipsing down the philosophical avenue seems an unlikely route towards the destination of concord. A big part of the unlikeliness has to do with my general incompetence about philosophy, so errors are to be expected.

Until recently I'd never heard of Gotthard Gunther, a very important philosopher, born and 1900 and died in 1984. I was looking for Web pages about Warren S. McCulloch and landed on a remembrance of McCulloch by Gunther entitled Number and Logos. This essay seemed profound and was very exciting to me. I know that I'm kind of strange to get excited about metaphysics. It's especially strange because I'm fairly ignorant about philosophy, and truly inept when it comes to logic. Nevertheless, Gunther's ideas in the essay made an awful lot of sense and it seemed incredible that I'd never heard of Gotthard Gunther. The Vordenker Webforum hosts the Web pages for the Institute for Cybernetics and Systems Theory in Bochum, Germany. They have quite a number of papers by Gunther and about him up.

Gotthard Gunther's ideas about polycontexturality are very engaging indeed. But what I'm interested in for this post has more to do with Gunther's deft handling of the intersection of epistemology and metaphysics. Epistemology has to do with how we think. Gregorgy Bateson was convinced that scientific thinking, specifically thinking about living systems, suffered from bad habits of thought. I mentioned that he pointed to the great chain of being as a large logical argument. The great chain of being goes to the subject of ontology, a branch of metaphysics. Bateson also noted that Lamarck turned the deductive chain of the great chain of being upside down. And noted:
The unity of epistemology was retained in spite of a shift in emphasis from transcendent Logos to immanent mind.
Wow! Well the shift in emphasis really does seem to me to make a big difference when it comes to religious metaphysics. The epistemology part needs unpacking too, and Guther's work is quite useful for that.

Wikipedia is always handy for someone as unschooled as me, and in the article, Laws of Thought the three classic laws of thought attributed to Aristotle are listed:
law of identity
law of noncontradiction
law of excluded middle
The first two laws are easy to grasp. Identity says A is A. Noncontradiction states that contradictory statements cannot at the same time both be true. The third law is a little less intuitive, at least for me. But another name for the law is Tertium non datur meaning "there is no third (possibility)." That makes more intuitive sense.

Ah logic! I managed to fail the course twice. Nonetheless everyone--even me--knows that logic is quite useful.Classical logic has stood the test of time, and regardless of limitations provides a huge area of agreement. When people talk about reason, classical logic is a big part of what they mean. However classical logic fails sometimes. Bateson points out as example:
When the sequences of cause and effect become circular (or more complex than circular), then the description or mapping of those sequences onto timeless logic becomes self-contradictory.
ThinkArt Labhosts many papers of Gotthard Guther as html pages, here. The paper I will be referring to is Life As Polycontexturality and I just linked to a PDF of the paper--so the choice of file formats is yours if you care to read it.

Gunther opens in a startling way:
A great epoch of scientific tradition is about to end. It has lasted almost two-and-a-half millennia and philosophers and scientists begin to call it the classical period of science.
That might make you want to read the entire piece, but right now I'm interested in what he says about the classic way of thinking. Gunther begins with the conception of science Aristotle presented. Aristotle according to Gunther proceed from a Platonic distinction between Being and Thought. You'll note this distinction has to do with ontology or metaphysics rather than epistemology. However the relevant question is: "How can Thought ever know Being in a rigorous and communicable way?" Gunther presents Aristotle's method: "Aristotelian logic-found to be in the deduction of the particular from the general."

The great chain of being is an idea which lasted over time and hence colored and flavored differently, but as an argument follows the form of this Aristotelian logic as Guther describes:
It is the general or - as it is better called in its ontological aspect - the universal. The general is, - qua Being, the ultimate substratum of Reality on which everything rests, but at the same time it is the supreme Idea from which all particular thoughts derive.
Under the universal Guther places four pairs: Being/Thought, Causality/Reason, Thing/Concept, Positive/Negative to illustrate a dualism which emerges from the ambiguity of the universal. Gunther has no quarrel with this Aristotelian theory of epistemology as far as it goes. He does note some limitations and the rest of the paper defines a construct of contextures, which I won't discuss now.

I'm still mulling over Bateson's point that Lamarck inverted the great chain of being. Following on that Darwin proposed his theory of evolution, which is only one branch of science provoking discord between science and religion. I don't want to foster discord, or even discuss evolution. Instead in an incompetent and long winded way trying to point to more basic issues of epistemology and ontology. There surely are areas of conflict, but also possibilities for concord; that is especially the case if one agrees with Gotthard Gunther that "a great epoch of scientific tradition is about to end." The old conflicts between science and religion may not be the most important today, nor old areas of concord still in effect.

Last night I began watching Keith Hart's Cambridge lecture on international development. I watched the first four videos. I was struck by Hart pointing out how important Cambridge was as a center for Evangelical Christianity, and how important that was for international development.

Via the Wikipedia article on The Great Chain of Being I liked to a 1975 paper from the journal History of Science by William F. Bynum, The Great Chain of Being after Forty Years: An Appraisal (PDF). Hart is an anthropologist who gets at his subject through economics. William F. Bynum is Professor Emeritus of the history of medicine at the Wellcome Centre for the History of Medicine at University College London. Bynum notes in his paper how important it is to look at the relationship between natural history and anthropology. He examines Lovejoy's great study of the history of the idea of the great chain of being. He finds little fault in Lovejoy's treatment of the philosophical framework of the ideas, but notes that Lovejoy did little to assess how "the empirical, social, rhetorical, or polemical dimensions coloured the ways in which individual thinkers used the chain of being." So to an extent Bynum takes an anthropological perspective towards the book. And as Hart encouraged his Cambridge audience to pay attention to the Evangelical Christian legacy of Cambridge, Bynum avers that Christianity is crucial to understand what happened to the idea of the great chain.

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. Among the many articles on Darwin in the press many have noted that Darwin's anti-slavery views were important to his development of the theory of evolution.

This post is confusing! I've suggested that scientific ideas are moving in ways that may make a difference in the ways that science and religion might find areas of concord. I introduced in a very sketchy way Aristotelian logic as an area where of agreement about reason, but also point to limitations in its use. Basically logic is part of epistemology, nevertheless hint that the limitations are in part a result of ontological ideas that have relevance to both science and religion. Finally I introduce the notion that to understand the history of ideas social context plays an important role. I allude to the prospect that present stereotypes of Evangelical Christianity may distort the significant contribution to emerging scientific ideas. In the next post I'll take a stab at relating all of this to Buddhist economics.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Economics and Ecology

When I first saw Linda's Nowakowski's proposal and noting that the theme for the 2009 Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions is: "Make a World of Difference: Hearing each other, Healing the earth," my thoughts turned to the words: ecology and economics. Both have at root the Greek word oikos but are quite different words. Oikos as "home" was not synonymous with "house." Oikos encompassed the land, the buildings, the produce, the slaves, the family, and a man was at the head.

Economics joins oikos with the the Greek root nomos meaning law or principle. According to Wikipedia the word economy goes back at least as far as the 15th Century but the current meaning from the 19th Century. Taking the Greek meaning of home with the metaphor of family organization with a man at the head and joining it with “law” seems revealing of how we think about economics.

Ecology begins with oikos and added to it logia meaning to speak. Ecology is the study of the interactions of living things and their natural environments. The history of the word is located roughly at the same time as the word economy--at least in the current meaning--but the assumptions about where the home is in eco are quite different. In ecology home is seen as a much a larger unit: instead of home as a political system with a man at the head, home is our planet and the biosphere in which we live.

Economics is concerned with the management of resources, the rules of the house as it were; and of course who gets to make the rules. But ecology comes out of the study of biology. Looking back at the 19th Century biology and Darwin's ideas are of great importance, but Wikipedia's article on the History of Ecology notes that Darwin never used the word. It's a very good article naming some of the contributions to the development of the field of study. Darwin theory of evolution is enormously important in discussing economics and ecology, but I'll put that off for the time being.

Over the last few posts I've thrown a lot of balls in the air, and mostly they've fallen to the ground, so it's probably not apparent I'm trying to juggle all of them. I'm trying to create a pattern of relationships with these ideas. So in the last post I introduced the construct of the great chain of being. The great chain of being is an ancient idea that intersects with modern concepts in various ways, so many ways that it gets a bit confusing. Another idea I introduced in the last post was that in studying human and behavioral sciences, I think there's a fundamental problem.

Taking a broad brush to the idea of the great chain of being it might be fair to say that the idea represents a unity between what is and our ideas of what there is. The problem of the human sciences has to do with how to speak carefully about areas of study involving human beings. In the hard sciences we speak objectively; that is we speak about objects. But in behavioral sciences the objects of our attention are subjects not mere objects. Well, that last sentence doesn't make much sense; consider the difference between a careful description of kicking a ball and kicking a dog. We can be much more sure about predictions about kicking the ball.

Historian John Lukacs has a beautiful essay Putting Man Before Descartes. He writes:
But isn’t objectivity an ideal? No: because the purpose of human knowledge—indeed, of human life itself—is not accuracy, and not even certainty; it is understanding.
Economics and Ecology both share a classical Greek root for home, but each field has a different idea of home. Economics is very materially focused and in how stuff is managed and allocated. Both fields are influenced by scientific ideas of the time. But in a sense the laws that economics are concerned with are political and therefore different from the notion of laws of science.

Both economics and biology are steeped in materialism, a view that "the only thing which can be proven to exist is matter." If all that exists is matter, then we can talk about objects, we can attain a sort of objectivity. Lukacs points out that subject and objects are so intertwined that objectivity is more challenging to attain than we often suspect:
There may be dualities in our reactions, but—more important—there is increasing evidence that, ever since Descartes and others, the dual division of the world into objects and subjects, into known and knower, is no longer valid. And such evidence is not only there in the so-called humanities, but, during the general crisis at the end of the 20th century, in physics, too, involving the very study of matter.
In the short video clip I pointed to where E.F. Schumacher responds to the question: "Can Buddhist Economics work in the West?" Schumacher said:
There's no virtue [or] value, in maximizing consumption. You want to maximize satisfactions. And you want to get your satisfactions with a minimum of consumption.
Here's economics from a perspective of qualities versus quantities. It's not at all clear that most economists think this a proper perspective. They believe that economics ought to be the objective study of objects. They think economics is all about stuff. Nevertheless, it's hard to conduct a field of study which has so many political ramifications from a purely objective stance. The situation vis a vis subject and object in biology is less contentious and an objective stance hardly questioned. But as Lukacs points out in his essay, it's not just the Humanities, but even physics contending with the problem of the relationship between knower an known.

In my last post I pointed to Gregory Bateson and his observation that Lamarck was the first scientist to invert the great chain of being. Bateson wrote:
The Lamarckian biosphere was still a chain. The unity of epistemology was retained in spite of a shift in emphasis from transcendent Logos to immanent mind.
The great chain of being is important to epistemology, a theory of knowledge. It also speaks to ontology, or a theory of existence. I often get epistemology and ontology confused. Epistemology is a branch of philosophy. Ontology is part of another branch of philosophy named metaphysics. Materialism represents certain metaphysical commitments.

Epistemology is important to economics and ecology as fields of study. Because of the political nature of economics difficulties presented by knower/known dualities come up enough so they're hard to ignore. But one would expect that the rules of knowledge would apply regardless of the field, at least in some fundamental ways. But metaphysics commitments impinge on epistemology in interesting ways. The story of the great chain of being is one way to examine these intersections.

A gathering of people of various religions represents numerous differencing stances on metaphysics. In order to discuss a response to our ecological crisis, it seems to me that differences cannot be simply set aside. It seems particularly important to know how science views what exists. Likewise some agreements about how we know are required for responsibility for our planetary home. Surely there will be many areas of disagreement among people, what of the essence is to identify areas in which we can agree.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Tree Hugger

“Tree Hugger” has pejorative connotations; a tree hugger isn't in step with the economic program. Over the weekend I went to a party in an urban neighborhood. Pittsburgh is a hilly place and because of the geography neighborhoods are often little enclaves. Behind this house are two paper streets on paper, but never developed because there was mining underneath years ago and the danger of subsidence made building untenable. So in my friend's back yard and beyond is an urban forest. Dominating the view is a huge Black Locust tree, a fairly common native species here. I've never seen a more perfect specimen.

The tree inspired awe and affection in me, and my gushing about it among other things prompted a friend to remark about me approximately:
“You say you don't believe in God, but you tell stories like this. Sooner or later don't you think the stories fit together in a pattern that belies your profession 'There is no God?'”
Posts at Keith Hart's blog The Memory Bank are always though provoking. Hart is anthropologist and looks closely at economics through that lens. In his recent post about speculation in the art market, Hart writes:
My favourite definition of religion is Durkheim’s, the attempt to build meaningful bridges between the known and the unknown, between everyday life and the disasters that lie in wait for all of us, especially death.
In my study of the human and behavioral sciences, way back my early days in college, I became increasingly sure there was a fundamental problem about them, a rather philosophical problem about how we think about objects and subjects. Identifying the problem in this way points to the territory Durkheim stakes out for religion: building meaningful bridges between the known and unknown. And turns attention towards the meaningful bridges between knower and known.

Anyhow, about this sense that there's something fundamentally missing in the human studies, the work of Gregory Bateson has provided me with a reference and a guide since my college days in the 1970's. He was British and trained in British school, but worked during his career in the United States. He was an anthropologist, and also in on the beginnings of the development cybernetics.

The issue I'm dancing around goes by many names which are pairs; partial listing of pairs would include: mind/body, form/substance, subject/object. German philosophers had much to say about the topic of these pairs and their relations; American and British philosophers too. Bateson was a bit idioscyratic in the ways he talked about everything. When it comes to this general subject, partly his way of talking has to do with the British and American schools of philosophy, and part his unique insights.

Stewart Brand's inspiration for the first Whole Earth Catalog were the writings and ideas of Buckminster Fuller. Gregory Bateson the inspiration for the Whole Earth Epilog. It's hard to imagine today that catalogs printed on newsprint would be influential to a generation of Americans, but these were indeed. Yet I've never really met anyone much interested in Gregory Bateson. Among those I've talked to interested in the problem of human studies have been more steeped in German philosophy or various stripes of post-modernism. It seems people come to the topic of objects and subjects with very different frames with particular vocabularies. Whenever I bring up Bateson, I seem to get into a muddle.

In thinking about “Why Buddhism?” an observation that Bateson makes in the introductory chapter of his book Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity seems important. Bateson wrote:
I hold to the presupposition that our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity was, quite simply, an epistemological mistake...

A part of the stroy of our loss of the sense of unity has been elegantly told in Lovejoy's Great Chain of Being, which traces the story from classical Greek philosophy to Kant and the beginnings of German idealism in the eighteenth century. This is the story of the idea that the world is/was timelessly created upon deductive logic. The idea is clear in the epigraph from The City of God. Supreme Mind, or Logos, is at the head of the deductive chain. Below that are the angels, then people, then apes, and so on down to the plants and stones. All is in deductive order and tied into that order by a premise which prefigures our second law of thermodynamics. The premise asserts that the "more perfect" can never be generated by the "less perfect."
I found online a page of a handout for a philosophy class taught by Peter Suber. Suber has organized the claims of the great chain of being to show how they fit together to form a single large argument.

Bateson points out that in the history of Biology that Lamark was the first to invert the great chain of being. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck is mostly known for Lamarkian errors of the heritability of acquired characteristics. Nevertheless Lamarck's theory of "tranformism" presaged Darwin's theory of evolution. Bateson was concerned with epistemology, a branch of philosophy which deals with the theory of knowledge. He was interested that what he said contained fewer epistemological errors. He doesn't follow the logical argument of the great chain of being, nor an inverted form. Rather he points to them to show a hierarchic structure of thought. Steeped in Anglo-British philosophy he relies on Bertrand Russell's Theory of Logical Types.

A sort of a recap of my recent ramblings over my last few posts:

A friend who is very knowledgeable wrote a proposal to do a session at the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions on Buddhist economics. She opened up the process of making the proposal online. I wrote some of my thoughts about it, but they didn't come together. So I thought to break my writing into parts here to see whether I could get the parts to hang together better. I began this with the post Why Buddhism?

I mentioned a post at Religious Dispatches about America's oldest man, as well as E.F. Schumacher's essay "Buddhist Economics." Two anecdotes don't make a trend, but it seemed enough to frame a question why Christians would use Buddhism to explain something. While I am genuinely curious about this, posing the question really was rhetorical, a means to begin speculating wildly. I don't know much so clearly anything I say falls into the "for what it's worth category."

For what it's worth, my hunch is part of the reason why Christians turn to Buddhism to explain something has to do with skirting around the deductive logic of the great chain of being.

In religion and philosophy distinctions are of great importance, so it takes a great deal of skill and study to negotiate these areas. About how we think and how we make are lives meaningful are questions everyone ponders and have something to say about. When discussions about religion and philosophy come up there's a tension between insisting on important distinctions and a spirit of tolerance which enables conversation across differences.

I know my friend Linda Nowakowski, who's deeply immersed in the study of Buddhist economics is very careful about making distinctions. And she very much people with differencing views to speak to each other, hence the effort to make a proposal for the Council for a Parliament of World's Religions.

Economics like other human studies has to contend with the problem of subject and object. That's a problem religions address too. The intersection of interest around this problem makes me want to persist in laying out my views, even when I see that my writing isn't making much sense, and is boring. For better or worse I plan to explore this line of thinking in future posts.

Thursday, March 05, 2009


David Rockett left a comment on the last post which begins:
Well, here we go again -- people presuming to critique something they've not bothered to read, much less study carefully, or charitable.
Criticism is sometimes hard to take, but is very often quite helpful. David's comment shows I've not been clear, so I want to try to be so.

My intention is not to critique so much as to inquire. I was not reviewing E. F. Schumacher's book, "Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered."

David Rockett goes on to offer constructive comments. He avers that the essay on Buddhist economics in the book was "a foil, tongue-in-cheek baiting you to read what's essentially a Christian view." That might be. After the death of his first wife Schumacher became a Roman Catholic. As for further evidence for David's point, the quote from the video I linked to in the last post where he says "I might have called it Christian economics, but then nobody would have read it" seems tongue in cheek. My own opinion is that the essay is something more than "tongue in cheek." Schumacher in his work with the Coal Board in India was quite interested in Gandhian economics. According to the article in Wikipedia he first coined the term Buddhist economics while in Burma working for the UN in 1955. The plain reading of the essay shows a genuine concern for a Buddhist perspective.

Here's something I want to be clear about: E. F. Schumacher is not the be all and end all of Buddhist economics. Buddhist economics is a school of economics with adherents all over. There are many experts on the subject; I am not one. I want to know more about Buddhist economics. The E.F. Schumacher essay Buddhist Economics provides a quick and enjoyable general introduction to the subject. But there are plenty more resources to search for. Joel Magnuson's recent book Mindful Economics has been positively reviewed at a number of sites. I haven't read the book, but know that Magnuson is an American academic whose views are in the Buddhist economics camp. There are several post on Buddhist economics at 10 out of 10 blog. That link is to "Buddhist Economy in Practice" and if you like that one use the search box to discover more.

The E. F. Schumacher Society also has many interesting pages about Schumacher, including the biography of Schumacher written by his daughter Barbara Wood. There's a veritable cornucopia of interesting links there.

Anyhow, I did not mean to be uncharitable about E. F. Schumacher and don't see how I was. Nor did I mean to suggest I'm an expert on Buddhist economics. I'm no expert on economics, Buddhism, heck I'm no expert.

I have a friend who is expert on Buddhist economics. Quite likely she'll attend the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions in Melbourne Australia later this year where she'll talk about Buddhist economics. I'm really jazzed about that prospect.

Daisy's Dead Air is one of my favorite reads. I consider her a friend, even if all that consists of is back and forth on her blog. She is an outspoken Christian. Most of my good friends are religious people. I don't take religion lightly, nor am I hostile to it. I have stated on this blog that I don't believe in God, and I have little interest in converting people to my outlook. I certainly don't want to offend people I have great affection for. Part of why I love Daisy's Dead Air so much is because Daisy likes ideas, even ones that don't comport well with her own.

It's a great pleasure that on the Internet we can be introduced to important knowledge and engage in conversations. These conversations often involve expert and non-experts and across various points of view. I'm quite imperfect and putting stuff up online makes that abundantly clear. I'm also sincere. For a variety of reasons I've been thinking about economics and religion lately. Both are subjects people have strong feelings about. All-caps shouting in comments probably goes with the territory with such subjects. I'm of two minds about that. On one hand commenting with sincere passion seems a good thing to me. But on the other hand toleration around religious and irreligious views is important to me.

I may have over reacted by telling David Rockett that if he's going to be ugly in the comments I'll delete the posts. Like I say, this blog doesn't get many hits and there's not a lively discussion forum here anyway. But if there is to be discussion, especially around religion, I would like the comments not to discourage people from expressing their views. The comments at Religious Dispatches seem to hit it about right.

I don't have a clear rule about comments, but broadly speaking those I'd consider deleting are ones which seem to me intended to silence me or others.

Update: I neglected to attribute the photographer. The picture is me and the photograph was taken by David Pohl. David reserves all rights to use of the photo. Photo copyright David Pohl.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Why Buddhism?

There's a charming piece up at Religion Dispatches, Buddha Mind, American Style where Louis Ruprecht, Jr. looks at the wisdom of American's oldest living man through the lens of Buddhism. I presume that America's oldest man, Walter Breuning is at least nominally a Christian. Ruprecht from observing his other writing probably is too. So it's curious to me how Buddhism is used to make sense of Breuning's philosophy of life.

The picture is a screen capture from a video of a question and answer session in 1977 where E. F. Schumacher responds to the question:
Do you believe that Buddhist economics will work in the West?
Schumacher said that he might as well have called his book "Christian Economics" as "Buddhist Economics." I think he was being flip. His book "An economics of permanence/Buddhist economics" was published in 1975, and in 1974 his book "The age of plenty: A Christian view" was published. I haven't read either! I don't know what Schumacher's religious views were; he seems to me a humanist and ecologist. I think his attention to religious views was born out of his compassionate interest in people and his intention to fit economic decisions with religious ideas so that we might think with compassion (with passion) about economics.

It appears that Buddhism provided the easier fit for Schumacher as well as for Ruprecht than Christianity. Obviously trying to get into their heads as to why is a wildly speculative endeavor.

It doesn't seem so far fetched to imagine how to make story fit with Christianity. Perhaps Buddhism fits more easily because Buddhism doesn't require the transcendent mind and is compatible with immanent mind. There are various flavors of Creation Spirituality, and other attempts to create theologies compatible with immanent mind, but these notions often seem heretical to established religious order. Invoking Buddhism is a quick and dirty way of skirting around this theological problem.

E. F. Schumacher seems to have been a very kind-hearted man. It's something that he preferred to be interned in a British prison than to live under a Nazi regime at home. The notion within economics that labor is a commodity seems to have offended his sense of propriety. People are not the same and neither are their circumstances and an economics that doesn't take that into account seemed flawed. It's curious to me that his work in India would lead him to make this points about economics through Buddhism rather than though Hinduism, or even Marxist critique. Perhaps at least part of the reason to choose Buddhism was that the ideas were just familiar enough for recognition, but distant enough to avoid theological controversy.

Schumacher embraced an ecological view; a view that places change in focus. He was also a refugee from fascism, so knew firsthand that ideology necessarily has real world consequences. He knew that ideas matter. Schumacher embraced a scientific view which up-ended the traditional hierarchy with God at the top. There is a long history to Western science intertwined with the history of ideas.

I do not mean to suggest that E. F. Schumacher is the be all and end all of Buddhist economics. Certainly that isn't the case. Buddhist economic ideas are widespread, and not surprisingly many of the top scholars in this school of economics are Buddhists. Nevertheless Buddhist economics has an appeal to people outside Buddhism. Schumacher coined the term in 1955 and returned to and developed the idea in the years after. Casually searching I found a recent article in The Hindu Business Line, Give Buddhist economics a try. The essay that the author of that piece mentions collected in Schumacher's well-known book Small Is Beautiful can be found here.

Buddhism offers a way to critique modern materialism. That seems interesting and important, but it also seems a good idea to look in the Western traditions for critiques as well.

It's very commonly heard in the USA that our founding fathers intended this to be a Christian nation. When it's pointed out that many of the "founding fathers" were in fact deists, it seems mostly the point is glossed over as a distinction without a difference. In philosophy distinctions are quite important, which is one reason I have such a hard time getting a handle discovering broad outlines. Nevertheless, the Age of Enlightenment marks a boundary of great significance to the development of Western culture. From that Wikipedia article:
Historian Peter Gay asserts the Enlightenment broke through "the sacred circle,"[8] whose dogma had circumscribed thinking.
It seems that mentioning this break is something we're afraid to do. We appear to imagine that not mentioning religion is a sort of tolerance of religion.

Buddhists are among the contributers to Buddhist economics. Certainly it makes sense to approach Buddhist economics from that perspective. But it also makes sense to get to the essential ideas, especially if Buddhist economics is used to critique other schools of economic thought. For Buddhist economics to be important in the West, the history of Western thought provides necessary context. In broad outlines the history of how we in the West have changed our minds about God ought not to be missed.