Jun 06 2014

Read my new book!

I’ve written a book summarizing my thoughts on life, truth, morality, and religion. About half of the book contains material from this blog (revised, re-written, and greatly improved), while the other half is new material never released before. The book is called The Triple Path. You can download it here (available in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, or mobi format).


Sep 07 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – The Second Problem With the Way Things Are: Bad Voters

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politics,rightsJames @ 8:20 am

Last post we talked about problems with our politicians, but most voters aren’t any better. In fact, they’re often worse. Most politicians at least know something about the major issues of the day; most voters don’t.

Economists say that voters’ ignorance is rational: because each persons’ vote has such a small marginal impact on an election result, it doesn’t make sense to spend much time learning about the candidates or issues. What makes sense for each voter to do on an individual level, though, has disastrous consequences in the aggregate. The result is collective stupidity.

And rational ignorance isn’t the only problem—natural ignorance is too. Some people are dumber than others, yet everyone’s vote counts the same. Many good, sensible policies can’t be enacted because ignorant voters misunderstand them and oppose them on spurious grounds, often because the media and the entertainment industry have warped popular perceptions about what is right and true. Elected representatives thus sometimes can’t do what makes the most sense because ignorant constituents will vote them out of office if they do.

Surveys since the 1950s have consistently shown that most Anericans are poorly informed about basic, important civic facts about our country, government, and political situation. A majority of Americans were unable to answer sixty percent of such basic questions. Astoundingly, a majority of Americans didn’t know the answers to questions about

definitions of key terms such as liberal, conservative, primary elections, or the bill of rights; knowledge of many individual and collective rights guaranteed by the Constitution; the names or issue stands of most public officials below the level of president or governor; candidate and party stands on many important issues of the day; key social conditions such as the unemployment rate or the percentage of the public living in poverty or without health insurance; how much of the federal budget is spent on defense, foreign aid, or social welfare; and so on.*

Defenders of our current system may ask, isn’t having a republican form of government designed to solve this problem? We elect representatives who can inform themselves about the issues and vote for what would be best for us, so what difference does it make if voters are ill-informed? A lot, actually. How can an ill-informed citizen know how to pick the best representative in the first place? Indeed, research shows that people’s

political knowledge seems to increase citizens’ ability to consistently connect their policy views to their evaluations of public officials and political parties, as well as to their political behavior. For example, more-informed citizens are more likely to identify with the political party, approve of the performance of office holders, and vote for candidates whose policy stands are most consistent with their own views.**

Moreover, the better-informed demonsttate good citizenship beyond just choosing the optimal candidate or political party. Professor Michael X. Delli Carpini explained that

the larger literature strongly suggeststhat informed citizens are “better” citizens in a number of ways. Specifically, research has found that more-informed citizens are more accepting of democratic norms such as political tolerance; are more efficacious about politics; are more likely to be interested in, follow, and discuss politics; and are more likely to participate in politics in a variety of ways, including voting, working for a political party,and attending local community meetings. Research also suggests that more-informed citizens are more likely to have opinions about the pressing issues of the day, are more likely to hold stable
opinions over time, are more likely to hold opinions that are ideologically consistent with each other, and are less likely to change their opinions in the face of new but tangential or misleading information but more likely to change in the face of new relevant or compelling information.***

Beyond rational ignorance and basic stupidity, other voters vote against the public welfare act not out of ignorance, but out of naked self-interest, voting for benefits for themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens and future generations. The Baby Boomers have turned this into an art form.

To fix our system, we need voters who are informed, engaged, and public-spirited, rather than ignorant, apathetic, and selfish.

*Michael X. Delli Carpini, “An overview of the state of citizens’ knowledge about politics,” in M. S. McKinney, L. L. Kaid, D. G. Bystrom,  and D. B. Carlin (Eds.), Communicating politics: Engaging the public in democratic life, pp. 29-30, http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/53

**Same, p. 35 (citations omitted).

*** Same (citations omitted).


Jul 25 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – The First Problem With the Way Things Are: A bad way of selecting our politicians

Category: UncategorizedJames @ 12:26 pm

The summer after my first year at Harvard Law School, I worked at the Office of Legal Counsel for Governor Mitt Romney. At a small private meeting with the interns, an elected official (not Romney) said something that I’ve never forgotten. This politican pointed out that there are two different skill sets to being a politician: campaigning and governing. These two skill sets are different and we choose our politicians based almost exclusively on their skill at campaigning, not at governing. When we vote for non-incumbents, all we can go by is their skill at campaigning. For incumbents, we can look at their prior record when deciding. But few voters do. And even fewer have the intelligence, skill, and wisdom to ably evaluate a politician’s record (more on that later).

Someone who is good at campaigning isn’t necessarily good at governing. A lot of what it takes to get elected is looking good on TV (indeed, many studies indicate that a candidate’s looks influence voter choices, especially for less-informed voters and for voters who watch a lot of TV*), being a good public speaker, and being able to convince donors to give a lot of money to your campaign. Some of these skills can come in handy for candidates once they’re in power, but they are not the central skills to governing well. Having these skills doesn’t really say much about how wise and far thinking you are or about your level of integrity. They don’t show how well you know science, law, economics, foreign affairs, demography, and human behavior to understand what is happening in a society and thus make good, informed judgments to set a future course. For example, physicist Greg Cochran has pointed out that anyone who understood the basic science and engineering required to produce nuclear weapons would have known that the claims in the early 2000s about nuclear programs in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq—which were used to justify the Iraq War—were not in any way credible, given the state of Iraq’s human and physical capital.

When you think about it, it is bizarrely incongruous that we brag about how great democracy is, yet the thing we actually expect politicians to do—govern—requires a separate skill set from what we test them for on the campaign trail. Sometimes we luck out and get a politician who can do both things well. Too often we end up with disappointing mediocrities in power. The modern age of TV and internet makes this problem, which democratic republics have always had, even worse. It elevates form over substance and brings success to campaigners who look good on camera and give good sound bites, but who lack substance. More and more, we have elected officials who are good at campaigning but poor at governing.

The modern age also selects for a worse kind of candidate in a different way, because campaigns have become more grueling and difficult in three ways:

1) More time away from home. The American electoral process has always required that candidates spend time away from their homes and families, traveling and campaigning (especially for elections of the president, senators, and statewide offices). But the convenience and ease of modern travel and communication has caused campaign seasons to lengthen more and more. Thus, candidates are forced to spend ever-longer periods of time campaigning.

2) Increased scrutiny of their private lives and attacks on their character. Modern campaigns subject both the candidate and the candidate’s family to ever-greater intrusive scrutiny and criticism of all aspects of their lives and of their pasts—scrutiny both by the media and the opposition. And often the criticisms are not even true, or only partly true.

3) Fundraising and kissing up to donors. Modern campaigns require that candidates spend inordinate amounts of time fundraising and kissing up to donors.

What kind of person would subject themselves to this? Either someone who is extraordinarily public-service minded or someone who lusts for power, fame, status, and recognition. Which kind do you think most of our politicians end up being?

Even the public-spirited politicians, once they get a taste of power, too often end up going bad, and the bad ones just get worse. Modern research has confirmed Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt.” For example, people who occupy positions of power are prone to act with greater hypocrisy. They are more likely to judge others harshly for moral failings, but are less likely to actually follow those same moral requirements themselves—instead they judge themselves leniently for their own moral failings.** A laboratory study found that the more power someone had, the more likely they were to make choices that benefitted themselves personally at the expense of well-being of the group they were leading.*** Another study found that people even naturally became better liars—they got better at deceiving others—when they were given more power.****

To fix our system, we need a new way of selecting our leaders.

* Gabriel S. Lenz and Chappell Lawson, “Looking the Part: Television Leads Less Informed Citizens to Vote Based on Candidates’ Appearance,” Journal of Political Science, Vol. 55, No. 3, July 2011, Pp. 574–589, DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-5907.2011.00511.x, http://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/7536991/looking_the_part.pdf.

**Joris Lammers, Diederik A. Stapel, and Adam D. Galinsky, “Power Increases Hypocrisy Moralizing in Reasoning, Immorality in Behavior,” Pstchological Science, Vol. 21, No. 5, May 2010, pp. 737-744, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/21/5/737, http://epoca.globo.com/edic/616/616_Power_Hypocrisy_Psych_Science_in_press.pdf.

***Samuel Bendahan, Christian Zehnder, François P. Pralong, and John Antonakis, “Leader corruption depends on power and testosterone,” The Leadership Quarterly, April 2015, Vol.26(2):101–122, doi:10.1016/j.leaqua.2014.07.010, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1048984314000800?via%3Dihub

****Dana R. Carne, D. Dubois, N. Nichiporuk, L. ten Brinke, D. D.
Rucker, A. D. Galinsky, “The Deception Equilibrium: The Powerful Are Better Liars but the Powerless Are Better Lie-Detectors,” Un-
published Manuscript, http://faculty.haas.berkeley.edu/dana_carney/deception.equillibrium.ms.and.ols.pdf.


Jul 14 2016

Folkraed: A New Approach to Government – Introduction

Category: books,economics,government,history,law,policy,politicsJames @ 10:45 pm

Many of us feel like something is going wrong. We feel a deep and growing unease we are moving in the wrong direction, that we’re becoming strangers in our own country. This series of blog posts is an extended essay that explains what is going wrong in the United States and what we can do about it.

But first you must realize that the solution won’t come from going back to the way things were. The past is behind us. Things will never be the way they used to be. But we can learn from the past. We can adapt and take from what worked before to make new solutions that fit our present circumstances.

As this series progresses, I may tweak my planned structure a bit, but roughly speaking it will start with a series of 12 posts each dealing with one of our current problems, followed by 12 more posts giving solutions. Finally, there will be some concluding posts discussing a few overlapping ways of implementing the solutions. When the series is all done, I’ll revise and compile it into a short book of about 100 pages.

It may be surprising that a written work about how to solve the most pressing political problems of our day wouldn’t be longer. But, more often than not, correct explanations and solutions are concise. Occam was on to something. And brevity has the added benefit of making this work more accessible and widely read. I provide footnotes for readers who want to explore these ideas in greater depth. If needed, and time permitting, I may follow up with a longer, more academic book that explores these ideas in more detail.

In this essay series, I am frequently critical of various institutions and actors in our political system. My intent is not to single out specific individuals who work within that system for criticism. In fact, I have worked in, or worked closely with people in, all three branches of government. The vast majority are decent, honorable people trying to do the right thing, as they see it. They are no different from the rest of us, and most of us would act the same way if we were in their position. The problem with our current system is not that it is run by bad people, but that the system has serious flaws that bring out the worst in us and encourage counterproductive behavior. The problem is not some nefarious cabal or conspiracy undermining our country, but rather that the incentives in our system lead to pathological results, in spite of all the good people working within it.

This essay might give the impression that I believe our government is terrible and irredeemably broken. On the contrary, our system is quite good. I feel lucky to have been born an American. I think we have one of, if not the best, systems of government in the world. If you look at the full scope of human history, I think you’d be hard pressed to find a better time or place to live than the United States in the 21st century.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work to make it better. It is not wrong to strive for improvement. Sometimes improvement for everyone only comes when the best strive for better. We have a long traditon of this in the United States. In colonial times, our ancestors enjoyed one of the highest standards of living in the entire world, better than those in England and most other countries.* Even taxes were lower in the 13 Colonies than they were in England. In 1765, per capita tax burdens in the American colonies were 25 to 50 times lower than they were in Great Britain and 6.5 to 13 times lower than they were in Ireland.** Taxes were seven times higher for Americans after independence than they had been under the British.***

From a purely economic perspective, taxation without representation was actually working pretty well for the colonists. But, we are not rational economic robots, seeking to maximize our prosperity at the expense of all our principles, and neither were the Colonists.  Things were good in the colonies, economically speaking, but the political system was unfair and rigged against them—it was taking away more and more of their power to govern their own affairs and transferring it to unaccountable elites in far-off London.

The system was unfair and could have been—should have been—better, so our ancestors fought to make it so. As one of the Minutemen who fought at the first battle at Lexington said, the colonists didn’t fight because of taxes or repression but because “we always had governed ourselves and always meant to. They didn’t mean we should.”*** The colonists fought to keep their right to govern themselves, because the British had been trying to take it away. And what they did set in motion a revolution in governance across the world. Ever since, the government they fought to establish has been an example to the world showing the way to freedom and prosperity. Let us seek to set that example for the world once again.

The next post will discuss the first problem with our system, a bad way of selecting our politicians.

* Jeremy Atack and Peter Passell, A New Economic View of American History: from Colonial Times to 1940, 2d ed., 1994, p. 50 (“[C]olonists in 1775 enjoyed a . . . standard of living . . . [that] made them among the richest in the world at the time . . . . This is borne out in the estimates of the height of Americans fighting in the French and Indian War [often used by econonic historians as a proxy for economic well being, given the relationship of diet to height]. At five feet eight inches, colonists were much taller than those in lower classes who had stayed behind in England rather than risk all in a transatlantic adventure, suggesting few, if any, serious dietary and nutritional deficiencies.” Americans have always been willing to take risks to improve their lot in life, even since the beginning.)

**Atack and Passell, p. 68

***Stanley Lebergott, The Americans, 1984, p. 40

**** As quoted in Lebergott, p. 39.


Jun 20 2016

Re-Religionization: Secularization Can’t Stop Human Nature

Category: books,cosmology,Evolution,parenting,religion,scienceJames @ 2:35 pm

Summary: Religiosity is an inescapable part of human nature. Secularization won’t—can’t—overcome it. Instead, the growing trend of secularization has just led those professing no religion to express their innate religious natures in sub-optimal, ill-thought-out, ad hoc ways. My book, The Triple Path, offers a better alternative that integrates our modern scientific understanding of the world with the wisdom of the world’s great religions.

I just finished reading Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions by Catherine Bell. It is an academic work surveying the field of ritual studies, describing the role rituals play in human existence, and discussing the various types of rituals. I found particularly interesting this passage analyzing the causes and consequences of secularization in society:

Ritual-Catherin-Bell

“A more moderate position suggests that secularization is neither a linear developmental process that spells the demise of religion nor a mere interpretive bias on the part of Western scholars. Rather, it can be seen as a type of self-limiting process at work in all ongoing religious systems both ancient and modern. It is self-limiting because it can stimulate religious revival and innovation. As such, secularism may result from some critical degree of contact with different cultures—afforded by travel, conquest, immigration, or competition with neighbors for access to limited resources. If the exposure to plurality—that is, to other value systems and alternative forms of social organization—is intense and sustained or occurs at times of internal social chaos, it can begin to undermine the coherent sense of a unifying order that underlies a traditional society. Some people opt for new and foreign ways of doing things, especially if they are not the ones benefiting from the old ways. People have choices they never had before, whether they want them or not. The mere existence of choices among ways of thinking and acting relativizes what was once deemed absolute, raises questions, necessitates decisions, and promotes experimentation. In this context, some groups become more defensive of tradition, attempting to shun all new options while preserving the old without any change whatsoever. They may even attempt to ignore or retreat from the world around them. Yet older customs strictly maintained in the face of change do not function the way they used to, when they never needed to be asserted and defended. As a society tries to hold together increasingly diverse points of view, one effect is the institutional differentiation that comes with secularism. For example, as Catholics and Jews moved into small, traditionally Protestant New England towns and claimed their rights as full citizens, the explicit and implicit role of Protestantism in the fabric of the town’s social and economic activities was forced to retreat. What was a loss for some was a gain for others. As a result there is a shift of religion from the public and communal sphere to the private and personal, leaving some institutions shorn of all involvement in religion, while others become more explicitly the bastion of religious practice, values, and even public outreach and political lobbying….[A] view of secularism as a theory of institutional differentiation precipitated by the force of pluralism has come to dominate, in part because it recognizes that religion does not die out in secular cultures. On the contrary, in the form of autonomous institutions, religion may have a much sharper profile, it may demand more personal commitment, and it may even exercise more single-minded influence on other institutions.”

Secularization doesn’t mean the end of religion, as some fear. But it does create winners and losers and changes the nature of religion and its role in society.

Jefferson_Bible

The key phrase in the passage is that secularization “is self-limiting because it can stimulate religious revival and innovation.” The Second Great Awakening is a great example of this—America’s Founding Fathers were mostly Deists who disbelieved in many parts of Christianity and weren’t big on organized religion. But the next generation after them brought the Second Great Awakening, a period of great religious fervor and religious innovation. Something similar will happen in response to the current trend of secularization.

Some anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists point to cultural universals that are found in every human culture, and which appear to be an innate part of human nature (and thus a part of nature rather than nurture). For example, in every culture on Earth, humans speak languages to communicate and use personal names to identify themselves. Religion is another one of those cultural universals. It is found in every human society on earth.

The current trend of secularization won’t change human nature and eliminate religion, just like if a group decided to give up using language it wouldn’t eliminate language in future generations. If a group did that, refusing to teach language to their children, the kids would end up inventing their own language. In fact, this has happened among deaf children growing up in countries where a sign language wasn’t taught—when deaf children were brought together in an institution for the deaf, even though no one taught any language to them, they naturally and spontaneously invented their own sign language to be able to communicate with each other. Similar things happen when kids who speak different languages are all brought together (say, because their parents are migrant workers)—they invent a new creole language to communicate.

Something similar is inevitable with religion. Even with the growing trend of secularization, even if parents refuse to teach any religion to their kids, religiosity and religion will still continue in some form. It may be transformed (either in content or in its role in society), but you can’t change human nature.

It hasn’t even taken one generation for this process of re-religionization of secular people to already start happening. Among the “nones” who claim no religious affiliation, you can see a lot of quasi-religious behaviors about taboos and orthodoxies and sacralization of values. This haphazard, unconscious re-religionization of their lives often leads to suboptimal results. More often than not, they invent bizarre values to make sacred and barren orthodoxies devoid of much content and that fail to provide any deep, long-lasting meaning to their lives.

On the other hand, my book—The Triple Path—methodically and consciously sifts out the best parts of the world’s religions and puts them together into something new that provides a coherent, credible response to the secularizing pressures of our modern age, something that can allow religion to thrive again in our modern era. It’s a free download. Go read it.Front cover_smallest-EBOOK


Feb 18 2016

The Empty Crypt

A long time ago, a young man who had heard legends of a magic crypt that contained the secret of immortality decided to search for it. After searching for many years, he found it. It was in the Holy Land, hidden underground among some old Roman ruins. He entered the crypt, but it was empty. He saw no secrets written inside about immortality, and no magic elixir or fountain of youth. There was not even a coffin or a sarcophagus. The underground crypt just had an empty recessed area cut into the stone wall where a corpse or a coffin would have been placed. He lay down in the bare alcove, confused.

Suddenly, he felt like he was outside of himself, looking at where he sat. Time seemed to pass swiftly. Watching helplessly, he saw himself quickly age and die. He witnessed his corpse and clothes rot away until there was nothing left. The crypt was empty again.

Time continued to race by for him—years seemed to pass in minutes. Eventually, he saw a husband and wife approach the crypt. They build an enclosure over the crypt’s entrance, then entered and carved on the wall their names and a short account of their discovery of the crypt. They lay down in the same alcove. In nearly an instant their bodies aged and rotted away, just as his had. After a few years, their children came to the crypt looking for their parents. They found the enclosure built by their parents and their writings carved on the wall. Every few years, the children returned to visit the crypt. Their numbers grew over time as they brought their spouses and children, then grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Each time they came, they would build onto the protective enclosure at the crypt’s entrance, gradually turning it into a grand building. They would also add to their ancestors’ writings on the stone wall, turning them into a grand epic.

The man awoke from his vision, young again, lying on the bare alcove of the crypt. He urgently made the long journey back home. He married; had children; lived well; built; and wrote. For, in the crypt that day, he learned the secret of immortality.


Aug 10 2015

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Category: Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,Morals,ParablesJames @ 2:33 pm

There once was a vain emperor for whom nothing mattered more than what others thought of him. One day, two swindlers entered his kingdom. They presented themselves as weavers and tailors of fine clothing. For a very large sum, they offered to make the finest, most beautiful, and splendorous suit of clothes ever seen. Even more, they said that the clothes’ fabric was magic and would be invisible to anyone lacking in wisdom or virtue. They were very convincing. The emperor and his ministers believed the swindlers, and the emperor hired them to make new clothes for him.

As the swindlers pretended to fit the clothes on the emperor and cut and sew them, neither the emperor nor his ministers could see anything. Each of them began to doubt whether the swindlers had been telling the truth, but none wanted to admit that they couldn’t see the clothes. No one wanted to contradict what they thought was the consensus of the group. And no one wanted the others to think that he was lacking in wisdom and virtue.

Finally, the swindlers declared that the clothes were ready. It was announced to the subjects in the empire that the emperor would have a procession to show his new clothes, which could only be seen by the wise and the virtuous. The emperor presented himself to the swindlers, dressed only in his undergarments. The swindlers pretended to dress him. The emperor doubted whether there were really clothes on him, but he feared admitting that he could see no clothes and looking like he lacked wisdom or virtue. And even if he could prove that the tailors were swindlers, he feared looking like a fool for having been deceived by them long enough to get to that point. He thought it better to go along with them and rely on the small chance that maybe the clothes were real.

The emperor marched out in a regal procession amongst his subjects, who were gathered in large crowds outside the palace. The subjects all made a show of being in awe of his fine clothes. None wanted to disagree with the received wisdom, and none wanted to appear to be lacking in wisdom or virtue.

The emperor passed by a child who laughed and asked why the emperor was parading around in his underwear. The child’s parents were deeply embarrassed. They sharply disciplined him, and the child learned to not contradict the group’s opinion.

Later, the emperor passed a man who was known for standing up for the truth as he saw it. He was not argumentative, but he wasn’t afraid to share what he thought, even if it contradicted others. Like the boy, he stood up and said that the emperor had no clothes. The man was ostracized by his friends and neighbors, and few paid heed to his opinion.

The emperor continued to wear his new “clothes.” The swindlers began making clothes for the emperor’s ministers, then for the nobles in the empire, then for the wealthy, and then for the commoners. The swindlers grew wealthy and powerful.

Only a few people who were not afraid to stand up for the truth (as best they could understand it) continued to wear clothes. They were looked down upon by the majority and sometimes even shunned. They were mocked for lacking wisdom and virtue.

The empire had a warm climate. For many years, the majority who dressed in pretend clothes were able to go about their lives dressed only in their underwear with relatively little discomfort. Finally, though, a rare blizzard came through the empire. Most of the subjects no longer had any real outer clothes left to wear. The ostracized subjects who still wore clothes tried to share them with the others, but they refused. By now, they had banished their doubts. They had fooled themselves into believing that their clothes were real. They all froze to death, firm in their false beliefs.

The only ones who survived were those who did not let themselves be fooled by the swindlers and the group’s opinions. They showed their wisdom and virtue not through imaginary magic or by pretending to see things that weren’t there, but by firmly standing for truth, even when it was hard and there often seemed to be little immediate reward for doing so.

Sources: Hans Christian Andersen, “The Emperor’s New Clothes”; Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox, The Imperial Animal, 1971.


Aug 02 2015

The Community of the Sighted

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 7:57 pm

(A continuation of The Teacher to the Blind and The Healer of the Half Blind)

One of the disciples of the healer of the half blind grew dissatisfied with the secret teachings of the healer. The disciple recognized that he could see many things he couldn’t see before. He was grateful for the half-sight he had received, but it felt like there was also much that was missing from the healer’s cure and from his teachings. The disciple started noticing how much he still couldn’t see. Objects were blurry. He couldn’t see detail. He couldn’t tell the difference between similar shades He couldn’t see far away. And he couldn’t see well in the dark. He also began to suspect that there were other things to see that he wasn’t even aware of. He resolved to journey to the healer’s original community and see if he could discover more about the cure that had been preached by its original teacher.

After a long and difficult journey, he found his way back to the original community of the blind. They were still blind, and they were still divided into groups that clung to different beliefs about the teacher. He studied the teachings of the different groups of followers of the teacher. He noticed some things in common between almost all of the different groups, some of which were absent from the healer’s cure. He tried those things, and noticed that his eyesight got better. Next, he tried the unique teachings and practices of each group. (Some of them came from the teacher, and some were new. The new ones had mostly developed slowly over time as the groups diverged from each other and came up with new practices and teachings not from the original teacher.) Most of these unique teachings and practices had little value and had no effect on his eyesight. But occasionally some of them would make his eyesight even better. He paid careful attention to what was successful and compiled a list of what worked and what didn’t. Combined together, the things that worked had great positive effect. Eventually, he re-discovered a complete cure to his blindness. With the new additions, the cure was even better than the teacher’s original cure.

He wanted to share this cure with everyone. But he know that the members of the community had rejected such cures in the past. He thus avoided forcefully promoting his cure. Instead, he sought out those who felt their blindness, even though they didn’t know what it was like to see—those who yearned for a real cure, as he had. He taught first in the community of the blind, then he returned to his home in the community of the half-blind. Finally, he started traveling and teaching throughout the country. He discovered that everyone in the country was blind and needed to be cured. The followers of the teacher and the healer had also started teaching throughout the country, though, and there were many who chose to follow their useless or only partially successful cures.

Those who applied the real cure to heal themselves began to form a group focused on the cure, not on the healer or the teacher of the cure. And they tried out new approaches to improve the cure; some worked, some didn’t. They kept the ones that worked and discarded the ones that didn’t. The cure got better and better as more people tried it out and worked on improving it. They did not try to be secret or covert about what they were doing, but they were discreet. They knew that many weren’t emotionally prepared to accept this new approach or for the sensory overload of complete sight. Their group of cure-followers grew. It was not as large as the others, but it attracted wise and practical people who could tell the difference between falsehood and truth, between that which is relevant and irrelevant. They became leaders in their communities, helping the rest to see the way. Eventually, many were healed of their blindness.


Jul 26 2015

The Healer of the Half Blind

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 7:21 pm

(A continuation from The Teacher to the Blind)

Long after the teacher left, one of the blind who had heard the teacher’s original instructions finally heeded them and cured himself of his blindness. He declared himself a follower of the teacher and a healer of the blind. He tried to spread the teacher’s original message. The members of the community had known the follower since he was a boy. They knew all of his weaknesses and imperfections. Among all the conflict about different beliefs in the teacher, they refused to believe that the follower’s simple message had any relevance. They mocked him and refused to listen to him. They cast him out.

The follower spent time in contemplation and meditation alone in the wilderness. He finally realized that the cure he was preaching was so easy and simple that no one believed it would work. After wandering alone in the wilderness, he found his way to another community of the blind. He preached to the community members, saying that he had a great hidden secret to cure their blindness. He refused to reveal it to them at first. He said the cure was a grand and sacred secret, and that he would only reveal it to those who had been initiated in its mysteries. When he did reveal the cure to new initiates, he added many unnecessary steps and false explanations about how the cure worked, making the cure a much longer and more onerous process. Worse still, he had forgotten several necessary, easy steps and failed to teach them to his followers.

His followers were only partially cured of their blindness, but even this partial cure appeared miraculous to them. The follower was hailed as a visionary, and acclaimed as a great healer. He drew many disciples to himself. They were never fully cured of their blindness, though, and the cure they did receive came after much unnecessary pain and effort.


Jul 19 2015

The Teacher to the Blind

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Ethics,Evil,goodness,Morals,religionJames @ 7:21 pm

A wise teacher came among a community of the blind. He taught the people what they needed to do to cure their own blindness. The people whom he taught were so in awe of his wisdom and compassion that they wanted to know more about who he was. Being blind, they used their hands to feel him to understand his features. Each person touched a differ­ent part of him. Only being able to become acquainted with a small part of the teacher, they each concluded different things about his nature and traits. Each person was so self-assured about his or her limited perception of the teacher, though, that each presum­ed to understand the full truth about him.

The teacher was only with the people a short time. Almost as soon as he left, the people began ar­guing about who and what he was. News of his vi­sit, as well as news of the disagreements about his nature, passed quickly through the community. Each person who had encountered him in person told a di­f­ferent story about his visit and gave a different interpretation of his nature. As the stories spread, the details were slightly changed with each re­tell­ing, and each person formed an opinion about the teacher based on which story they had first heard or based on which story made them feel best. None of them acknowledged the teacher’s imperfections—they could not idolize an im­perfect being.

The people began to divide into groups based on which opinions about the teacher they believed. There was great disagreement between the different groups, and the people spent much time debating the mi­nute details of all aspects of the teacher’s superficial na­ture. Almost all of their opinions were either wrong or misleading because they were taken out of context. The people were so obsessed with validating their faulty perceptions and opinions about the teacher that they ended up ignoring most of his teachings about how to heal their blindness. Each group remem­bered only small remnants of the teacher’s original cure, remnants that were usually ineffectual on their own or which gave only the barest inklings of sight. Some people realized that the cures promised by the different groups didn’t work. They became disillusioned, and spent their time attacking the groups and the teacher, rather than seeking out a real cure. They relished every opportunity to point out the mistakes and foibles of the teacher and the leaders of the groups. The members of the community of the blind lived out their lives in un­necessary darkness, clinging to false, misleading, tri­vial, and petty beliefs about the teacher, rather than searching for a cure to heal themselves.


Jan 15 2015

Screencast: What is the spirit?

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,goodness,religionJames @ 9:52 am

This is a screencast called “What is the spirit?” It is based on a talk that I gave at the Phoenix Mormon Stories Conference in February 2012. It discusses the Mormon practice of trying to discover truth by relying on feeling the spirit, and how Mormons’ experience with feeling the spirit compares with the experiences of those in other religions.

I have written more on this subject (but with a more general, less Mormon-centric approach) in my book, The Triple Path. See Chapter Five of the book and more specifically, pages 223 through 244. You can download the book for free here (PDF). You can also download the book in EPUB or Amazon Kindle formats here.


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