Life is Good - Kevan J. Grenda. S13

"Impartial to joy and suffering, gain and loss, victory and defeat, arm yourself for the battle, lest you fall into evil."
- Krishna, Ch.2 verse 38, Bhagavad Gita


Personal Project Paper (2/26/13)

Web of Life and Self

“I too am not a bit tamed, I too am not translatable, I sound my barbaric YAWP over the roofs of the world.”
- American poet, Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Who, or what, am I? Who are you? What separates us? Perhaps it's "the difference that makes the difference…" (Gregory Bateson,) but what specific qualities or quantities make up the difference between you and I? What's to separate us and the surrounding universe? Perhaps it’s simply that different individuals have differening representations of themselves and each other. There is a "myself" and a "yourself," but what constitutes the "self?" Self is generally defined as: "a person or thing referred to with respect to complete individuality" (Dictionary.com.) Yet is a thing its definition?

Let us here suppose that "conscious existence" is an inclusive, yet necessarily simplified term for a being's interaction with its environment throughout its lifetime… Now what is life? (Here I am not referring to a label for all living things, or beings.) So we'll suppose "life" stands as another convenient, inclusive term for all experienced things (other beings and objects) and events perceived as different from the experiencing being's individuality. Anything not the self is life, the self's context. So just what is the "self" then? Here, "self" will represent the conscious (experiencing) being's individuality.* In intelligent or sentient beings, (intelligence/sentience meaning self-aware or self-conscious,) the self may be a sort of self-proscribed definition or representation of that being's individuality. Thus, we see that the sphere of conscious existence produces a binary; the sphere naturally separates a perceived internal self, the inside, from the external context of life, the outside.
Between the two parts of every binary is a relationship, as in a gradient, where the two extremes are connected by the multiplicity/continuum inbetween. The self/life binary similarly contains an inherent, gradient relationship. An optimal, yet attainable, conscious existence (being-life interaction) takes the form of a reciprocal relationship, a complex, balanced composition of give-and-take between a life's seemingly random opportunities, and its central being's actions and reactions. This type of relationship is the balanced middle, or near proximity to, the center of the conscious existence spectrum. However, many people seemingly get caught in the extremes, in unhealthy, unbalanced relationships with their lives. (This is possibly a "side-effect" of our intelligence, which in addition to allowing us to plan for the future, also allows for distracting fears, worries and anxieties that may cloud our vision of reality.) Some entirely submit, assuming a passive, reactionary role. These are the "victims of circumstance," stuck thinking their life determines itself absolutely and unalterably while also defining who they are. In truth, one's self, one's conscious awareness and actions, determine much of one's life. Knowing this, others assume dominant roles, thinking they are wholly in control. Most of these people do understand that unpredictable events occur, but they do not realize how much of their conscious actions and awareness are affected by "other means…"
Both types of person are stuck in complementary relationships with their lives, though on opposite ends of the spectrum. Both people are sort of "at odds" with life. Neither of these approaches to life is wholly correct, yet neither is wholly incorrect. Again, a reciprocal relationship with life is ideal. The relationship with life determines the context of conscious existence. One indeed has much influence on our experience/existence, yet all must understand that they are subject to the natural patterns of the unconscious universe. But even then, in theory, many of those unpredictable occurences (favorable or not) could be attributed to the actions of another self, an identity existing outside oneself. So, the context of existence in turn determines the self and the life. Reflections of reflections…. So now, zooming outward, we can see a pattern emerge. It appears the collective experience of all concious beings, not just self-conscious ones, is an expansive web of connections, strung up in the dark. Each being is a luminous sphere glittering in the darkness, and in their actions, throwing out radient beams of energy to be caught, absorbed, and reflected by those in the vicinity.
So what is a more fitting definition of self then? Is it how we define ourselves? Is it those superficial representations that only describe a particular aspect of ourselves (how we dress, what we eat, etc?) Or, rather, can our complicated, holistic "self" be described as the surrounding context and our effect on it? Who and what we affect, with what we say or do, is a true reflection of who we are, not who we think we are.

"We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects." - American novelist, Herman Melville

*I think of all beings as having a "consciousness," (i.e. a plant experiences it's existence,)** but only humans can definitively be said to have intelligence/sentience/self-consciousness. (A plant doesn’t have an idea of itself as an individual.)

**Also, to clear things up: a rock is not a being, it is not living. A rock is material. (Water, air, and dead things are obviously not living either, they are material.) The rock of course exists, it has its own existence, but it is not conscious. The unconscious rock does not experience its existence, it merely exists. A plant however, as a being, I would consider conscious. It exists. It is alive (whatever THAT means…) It interacts with its environment (purposefully? We don't think so.) And it has a lifetime (a period of existence as a living thing). So the plant "experiences" a conscious existence, it just dosen't know/understand. Knowing and understanding are what intelligence and/or sentience define (they're really very similar.) As I said, "only humans can definitively be said to have intelligence/sentience/self-consciousness." I say this because animals (but not plants, fungi, or protists… or Monera) have intelligence, some more than others, but it is questionable to what extent they are self-conscious. (Intelligence is a gradient. A human is more intelligent than a dolphin which is more intelligent than a mouse which is more intelligent than fruit fly.) A human is certainly self-conscious. A fruitfly is most likely not self-conscious. But what about "higher-order" (more intelligent) animals, like octopi, chimpanzees, or dolphins? Dolphins actually have sex for reasons other than instinctual reproduction, for pleasure. Doesn't that in some way indicate that dolphins may have some amount of self-consciousness? I mean, dolphins don't worry if they're fat, (only humans are so silly.)


"Hate can never be appeased by hate; hate can only be appeased by loving-kindness." - The Buddha, Metta-Sutra

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Spheres within the Earth System

-Geosphere: the solid planet, from crust to core. Includes all minerals and rocks.
-Hydrosphere: all water on Earth: both oceans and lakes, and in the atmospere.
-Atmosphere: air. The gaseous envelope surrounding the planet where climate (interactions between space and atmosphere) and weather (interactions between atmosphere and the planet's surface) occur.
-Biosphere: all Life on Earth, from hardy Archea bacteria to silly humans.
-"Technosphere": (Sometimes called "Anthroposphere," but "Technosphere sounds cooler…) Encompasses all human-made technology: from stone hand-axes to particle accelerators. I would like to include not only man-made technology/stuff but also human action.
-Noosphere: (pronounced "noah-sphere") encompasses all human thought. Just like the organisms from the biosphere, ideas are living things that are born and die, and affect the other spheres. example: Racism is slowly going "extinct." Science was "born" during the Enlightenment.

"And so, we are all connected in the great circle of Life." - Mufasa, "The Lion King"


"Short Assignment 2" (3/8/13)

List Of Ecological Issues:
-Global Warming: increase in the average temperature of Earth's near-surface atmosphere and oceans since the mid-20th century and its projected continuation.
-Peak Oil: point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. (Approaching expiration of natural resources (wood, coal, oil…) in general.)
-Loss of Biodiversity: The number of species endangered by human activities, and the number of natural or semi-natural habitats, being destroyed or changed is constantly growing, thus destabilising ecosystems.
-Overpopulation: Excessive population of an area to the point of overcrowding, depletion of natural resources, or environmental deterioration.
-Deforestation/Desertification: Deforestation is the clearance or clearing is the removal of a forest or trees where the land is thereafter converted to a non-forest use. Desertification is a type of land degradation in which a relatively dry land region becomes increasingly arid, typically losing its bodies of water as well as vegetation and wildlife.

It should be noted that all of these issues, and many more, are all intertwined in the Earth system. These reactions are “naturally” occuring events that are simply amplified to an unnatural intensity because of human activity and technological processes. Global Warming, loss of biodiversity (mass extinction,) and overpopulation are all natural trends that occur with or without the presence of modern humanity. They have happened before, are happening now, and are guaranteed to happen whenever any Life may reside in the universe. Normally, “Nature” can quickly supress these ecological inbalances: overpopulation occurs in an ecosystem and that population begins to starve out, leveling the population to a baseline concurrent with the available resources. But Humanity has “outgrown” Nature in our habits, Nature can no longer counter-act the ecological imbalances of our industry and pollution, except by violent reaction…
Since Earth’s atmosphere formed, and with it climate and weather, there have been natually occuring trends of warming and cooling. If the atmosphere was uniform (which is impossible because of its relationship with the planet’s surface and space,) there wouldn’t BE climate and weather. The cooling trends are known as Ice Ages, “periods of long-term reduction in the temperature of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental ice sheets, polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers” (Wikipedia.) Trends of temperature increase, on the other hand, are simply “warm periods” or periods of “Global Warming.”
However, the Global Warming spoken of over the last 50 years is different. This warming trend (actually going back to about late 19th century, about the end of the Second Industrial Revolution…) is unlike any before. “A heat spike like this has never happened before, at least not in the last 11,300 years,” said climatologist Shaun Marcott. This “trend” shows little to no sign of dropping off; this period of global warming is being fueled onward by human activity. Modernity and “modernized” nations are characterized by heavy development and industry. The constant burning of (non-renewable and fast depleting) fossil fuels for energy, deforestation for more land to be developed, and greenhouse gas emissions are all contributing to this “anthropogenic” (human induced) climate change. “If not for man-made influences, the Earth would be in a very cold phase right now and getting even colder,” (Oregon State and Harvard Universities.)
This anomlaous Global Warming trend is Nature’s storng reaction to the anomaly of humanity. Intelligence, (an “experiment” in evolution,) and with it emotions like fear and behaviors like greed, allowed us foresight/gall to plan ahead for our survival; this contributed to our biological success (or luck) over all other species. We began to hunt more animals than we needed to for the moment, because stocking up allowed us to get through the hard times like winter, or dryseasons, thus avoiding starvation and extinction. … Fast forward to modernity and human beings are the most complex, (but successful?) species in Earth history. Our intelligence allows us to create solutions to the side-effects of our success, one of which is overpopulation.
Now we’ve invented high-yeild farming and massive, factory-based food production to provide for our ever-growing numbers. Without intelligence, numbers of us would have simply starved to death in the name of natural equilibrium. Like I said, our habits have outgrown the Earth system… but we ourselves haven’t.We are still a part of the Earth system, and we need to realize that. With our winning intelligence came our possible downfall. Humans and our innate, yet conquerable, greed (an instinct to take more than we need,) will continue to exploit the Earth system in any and every way until: it gets SO severe that it brings about genuine change in our behavior (with lots of conscious effort,) or… we follow the dinosaurs* into extinction.

“There is sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed.” – M.K. Ghandi

*As I said, dinosaurs were, like us, the dominant species (the dinosaur “form” was most favored by Nature) at that time. Perhaps the bipedal, (albeit still horizontally oriented) predator species of dinosaur would have (with much time, luck, and enough hardship to fuel progressive evolution) eventually evolved intelligence.** But alas, in one of the Universe’s cruel jests, along came a asteroid… a damn huge one. (Let’s just say the dinosaurs were far from being able to send Bruce Willis to detonate a nuclear device on the suface of the asteroid in order to save their species from extinction.)

**Biologists, anthropologist, geneticists, archeaologists…. “the experts” believe that human intelligence evolved from a combination of factors. (I like to say we were biologically lucky.)
Basically (and ironically) it starts with climate change. A LONG time ago, the area of Africa inhabited by distant, distant human ancestors (at this point, tree-dwelling apes) began drying out. Pockets of trees became few and far inbetween, with more open ground to cover from one to the next; these apes were forced to come down and walk (not upright just yet) more often. Physiologically, it takes more effort (and energy, i.e. food consumption) to walk on four legs than two. Bipedalism in this case was a favorable trait. The apes already had a body that allowed occasional walking on two legs (as modern chimpanzees do sometimes when they are carrying things) but sustained upright walking is quickly tiring.
Here’s where the process of natural selection comes into play. The favored trait (a body that allows for sustained upright walking) made ape-individuals more likely to live longer and thereby more likely to reproduce (the biological meaning of life.) Over an enormous period of time, (evolution is a SLOW process) the apes’ bodies changed bit by bit, generation by generation, allowing for more and more sustained upright walking, and ability to travel father and farther distances to find food until eventually, the apes were born fully upright.
This biological “event,” had many consequences, but I’ll focus on ones relating to brains and eventually intelligence. Walking fully upright, with a vertical center of balance, our brains had “room to grow.”

(Example: “horizontal” animals generally have a tail that helps them maintain balance. Brain growth, and with that bigger skulls, is not a viable option, as it throws the animal’s equilibrium off balance. (Imagine a teeter-totter with a weightless bucket at one end. It is all ready balanced, perfectly horizontal, when you start to pour water into the bucket. This additional weight forces that end of the teeter-totter down. You’d have to either add equivalent weight or additional length of equal wieght to the other side in order to reinstate balance.) Why animals like wolves or big cats couldn’t simply evolve bigger brains and longer tails I don’t know exactly. (I suspect it had to do with the awkwardness of an animal with head and tail disproportionate to its body.) But anyways, walking/standing upright negated this delicate balance, and allowed for our brains to grow. (Now imagine centering a bucket on top of an upright pole. No matter how much water you pour in, the bucket doesn’t shift the poles’ balance. The vericle pole better displaces the water bucket’s weight.) The veritcal pole represents an early human’s spinal column, the bucket represents the brain.)

But that’s not all of it. The experts found that walking upright didn’t solely account for all the growing our brains did. It’s as if our brains grew in two separate stages of evolution. The second stage occurred much later. … After the hominids (bipedal apes) had been walking fully upright for “a while,” probably hundreds (or thousands) of generations, climate change (and our new ability to travel long distances) had spread them all over, many leaving Africa. The species had separated into many groups,some going northwest into southern europe, others going far east into southeast Asia. All the meanwhile they were evolving to better suit their environments, resulting in different species of early humanoids (much less ape-like and more human-like) all over. (Example: Neanderthals in the areas of modern Spain and France.) But a few species of humanoid, rather than going North, up and out of Africa, traveled southward. This species ended up along the eastern and southern coastlines of Africa, and they came into contact with a “new” situation: the sea and all its bounties.
(Remember, diversity and “new” experiences/environments are guiding patterns within the process of Nautral Selection.) The humanoids who had left Africa had followed animal herds; making a living following and hunting the same types of large herd animals using the same technology they had for generations (stone “hand-axes” (primitive multitools,) and stone-headed, wooden thrusting spears.) They were so adept at getting their food that they actually hunted many species to extinction. (Sound familiar?)
Anyways, the early human species that wound up on the African coasts were faced with diverse situations to adapt to, namely the diversity of sea life as food sources. They began making many, many types of more-complex tools: fishhooks, nets, barbed spears, even small utencils for cracking open and eating various species of shellfish. This diversity of situation is (one of) the causes of the second “explosion” of human intelligence.

Now, there is much, much more to this story than I can write here by myself. Human evolution (if you accept that sort of thing,) is an expansive territory. What I wrote here is simplified, but it gets the basic idea (a sketch of the evolution of human intelligence) across. Much, much more happens before, in between, and after the time frame I wrote about here. If I managed to peak your interest, watch this Nova special, Becoming Human, on Youtube.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qc3QIk__aJw


Project Paper 2 (3/26/13)

Kevan J. Grenda
Bloom, J.
FS121
26 March, 2013

Rights and Responsibilities of Self in Society
"It's your business to live in the world you want." - Gregory Bateson

In the United States, the main issue dividing the nation’s two prominent political parties is whether to expand or restrict the legislative, executive, and judicial power of central government. Democrats, or Liberals, argue for greater freedoms allowed citizens (legalized marijuana, gay marriage equality, women’s right to abortion) through the use of expanded power in government. Opposing them, Republicans, or Conservatives, fight for freedoms (“religious freedom,” reduced gun laws) through the restriction of governmental legislative power. (Obviously these stances are generalized policies for both the “left” and the “right,” and in fact most citizens fall within a range of “moderate” political stance.) Yet, regardless of political stance, there are many Americans who call into question the actual freeness of American citizenship and question the specific freedoms, or lack of, allowed/denied them by the central government. (Let us keep in mind however, that a government is a body agreed upon by the people to govern for the people, exchanging freedoms for safeties.)

My view is that every American citizen has both the right to, and the responsibility to maintain, a reciprocal relationship with American society. This relationship is meant to optimize the balance between individual freedoms with what is best for society. Citizenship should be characterized by a respect for the diginity of oneself and the equal dignity of all others to the same extent. Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas K. Ghandi, Martin Luther King Jr., and several other great social thinkers espoused an idea of “civil disobediance.” In this thought, a citizen (of any nation or society) has both the right and responsibility to actively refuse to obey certain laws, demands, and commands of a government if the ordinance is deemed unjust. (All three men happened to propose nonviolent resistance as well, but that is necessarily left out of this discussion.) I believe this idea of civil disobediance can be expanded to apply more broadly to both perceived unjust and just laws, in that every citizen has an individualized, personal role to disrespect laws they deem unjust, as well as respect and defend laws they deem just. (I guess in this case just and unjust could be defined simply as either respecting or disrespecting the rights of people, either as a collective or as individuals.) This relationship could actually be the definition and ideal form of citizenship.

Unfortunately, a Democracy is driven by the demands of the majority of its citizens. In this type of system of government, minorities and individuals may be opressed by the demands of the popular majority. Yet, as we have seen, especially in the last 100 years, it appears that a minority, be they women, people of color, or homosexuals, will, given time and putting forth enough effort, be heard and eventually accepted in a democratic society. And yet, there are those who oppose this equality, namely because of confusion over what constitutes “rights.”

Generally, a person has “rights,” or freedom, as long as it does not infringe on the rights or freedom of others. For example, a citizen has nearly unbound religious freedom, but let us here suppose they happen to be a member of a human-sacrifice cult… In that case, the rights of the sacrificed person (right/freedom to be alive) legislatively precede cult members’ religious freedom. So some rights may precede others in some instances. But with that thinking, there are differing perspectives and disagreement over exactly which rights precede which others and in what way/situation/etc. This is the foundation for a lot of social issues* as well as court cases.

In the U.S. there are many allowances as well as many restrictions over what citizens can and cannot do. For example, a person over 18 has the right to smoke tobacco if they so choose. However, they may not smoke in most indoor, public places unless the area is specially designated for smoking. In my view, if a person, or persons, felt his/her right to smoke being oppressed by seemingly unjust legislation (in limiting their habit to outdoor and private places,) then I believe they have the right (and responsibility to other like-minded smokers) to (nonviolently) disobey. However, this does not mean that one man walking into a restaurant and lighting up will over turn the law… in fact he will probably just get called an asshole and be thrown out. But, if enough smokers did so, and held out against the consequences, things would change.

Now, am I saying I think there should be legal smoking wherever? No. That was just an example. In fact, the rights of nonsmokers to a smoke-free, public environment precede the rights of the smoker to smoke, and I think most smokers understand and accept that. And that, that fundamental understanding of rights is the basis for a healthy relationship with oneself, one’s neighbors and one’s society at large. By sacrificing their freedom to smoke indoors, smokers are doing something good (or at least not doing something negative) for the rest. Understanding is the basis for democracy itself. We see then, that laws are meant to balance out the rights of all: ensuring the demands of the majority are met, while the rights of the minority are safe. As citizens we are bound to protect and defend ourselves and protect and defend our society, even if doing something for society means sacrificing some of our freedom.

As I said, U.S. citizens are denied many freedoms. Laws say citizens cannot drive on the left side of the road, kill someone, prepare food for people without a food handler’s license, smoke in bars, etc. Yet all of these examples are “illegal” because they have the potential to infringe on the rights of others. Driving on the left might cause accidents and injure people, killing people kills people… and suppose eveyone you made tacos for got horribly sick? Not only that, but these laws seemingly protect those doing whatever-it-is as well . (I don’t imagine the 42 people who got food poisoning would be too happy with you!) The protection goes both ways. Understanding that sometimes one must make sacrifice for the good of others is key. And, in time one might find that making the sacrifice was more beneficial in the long run!

We all understand that the U.S. is not a perfect place, and that the U.S. government is most certainly far from being perfect. We can't decide what country we’re born into, (although we should consider ourselves lucky it was the U.S. and not North Korea) but hope lies in the fact that every citizen can, and should, take part in decisions of how to, and whether or not to change the way things are (to some extent.) This determined action towards progress is both the right and responsibility of every citizen of the United States.

"What if man is not really a scoundrel, man in general… the whole race of mankind — then all the rest is prejudice, simply artificial terrors and there are no barriers and it's all as it should be."
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

*Abortion is a perfect example of disagreement over rights preceeding other rights. Does the "right to life" precede "freedom of choice?"** Who's rights come first? Mother or (eventual) baby? There is no exact way to decide when a developing zygote then embryo then fetus is "human." At conception? When the heart has developed and starts beating? Who knows?
**Another interesting issue, is Euthanasia. Should a person have the right to die? Specifically, should a person be able to (in a controlled, medical situation) end their life? Again, does "life" precede "choice?" What's interesting in both this case and the case of abortion, (although more so euthanasia) is that its specifically argued that the sanctity of Life itself (not the right to it) precedes the freedom to choose.

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