Me, my Body and I: Part 3

It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.

In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.

By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.

The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.

Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.

That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.

Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.

I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”

“Yes,” she says, “of course.”

I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”

She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”

That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.

So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.

It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.

Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?

The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?

As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.

Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.

Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.

Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:

But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)

Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.

In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.

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*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: https://rogerjgalbert.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post&jetpack-copy=874. You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.

Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.

Family Ties That Bind

I haven’t written much here in the last while because of my other commitments. I chair a Museum board of directors and we’re very busy right now with governance reviews and all kinds of other activities. I’m also involved in an affordable housing nonprofit and other community organizations. It’s funny, but, on the one hand, when I don’t write for a while I feel restless and more anxious than usual. On the other hand, when I do write or draw or paint or sculpt, I often feel guilty for being so self absorbed. It’s not rational to feel this way, but that’s the way it is and I’m not about to get psychiatric help for it. At my age, I’ve learned to accept some of my more irrational feelings knowing that my frontal cortex is not completely in charge of my feelings and behaviour.

Besides, there are great alternatives to psychoanalysis or psychiatry, family time being one of them. I know that family time for many people means tension, pain and sorrow. That’s not true at all for me. My family is the glue that holds me together. We don’t always agree on everything as a family but on the important things we do agree. We absolutely all agree in the healing power of family connection. As a sociologist, especially one influenced by Norbert Elias, Thorstein Veblen, and Emile Durkheim among others, I understand the power of human connections. The absence of closeness, touching (physical and psychical), and interdependency can lead to early death in children and lifelong stress and anxiety in adults. We need other people, it’s as simple as that. Elias goes so far as to say that we as individuals don’t exist. We exist only on the social level. Everything beyond our most basic physical, tropismatic activities like peeing and pooping are social and even those activities are shrouded in social valuation. We don’t exist in society only in the present either. Our social connections go back a long way and often in ways obscure to us in our current mindscapes.

All that said, for two weekends in a row now, I’ve spent time with family. We don’t live close to our daughters and their families so if we want to get together we have to travel or they have to travel. It takes a substantial effort and it costs money. This past weekend my daughters came over from Vancouver with their families to where we live on Vancouver Island. We have three grandchildren under the age of ten and they make great house guests. One of our daughters and her husband also brought along one of his brothers and his wife. They all came to help us old wounded elders get a new porch built on the house and do a lot of gardening and related work. Without them our acre of gardens would soon revert to a natural state and we would be compelled to seriously consider downsizing. I’m just not yet ready for that.

The weekend before, Carolyn and I travelled to Vancouver to stay with one of my daughters and her family so that we might all attend a Mother’s Day Brunch event that one of my older sisters puts on every year for the family and friends. The whole family was not in attendance (I still have thirteen brothers and sisters as well as countless nieces, nephews, cousins and assorted other relatives) but it was well attended. My sister puts on a spread fit for kings and queens. Lots and lots of great food on offer. So much love goes into that event. My grandchildren had never experienced it before so this was a first for them.

I could go into more detail about each event, but the point is that on both weekends the spirit that reigned was one of helpfulness, caring and sharing. I’m not the most effusive guy out there, but I know that even if we’re not always on the same political wavelength, we know the value of family solidarity and togetherness. I’m also not given to maudlin outbursts. This is as close as it comes. However, I need to acknowledge my deep-seated need for human connection and love. That need, my family fulfills to my heart’s brim all the time, every day but especially on weekends when they come to help build a new porch! I pity people without family support no matter how one defines family.

Unfortunately, when our natural families do not or cannot provide us with the love and support we naturally crave as humans, we sometimes turn to other types of family in the form of gangs, politically or religiously extreme groups or we turn on ourselves and die inside like children in orphanages who literally died from emotional deprivation, neglect, or suffered hospitalism (See Rene Spitz’s study of Hospitalism). That’s the downside to our craving for connection.

Quality and Morality

 

Quality Foods. Quality furniture. Quality trucks. Quality, Quality, Quality. Shite. Robert Persig some time ago wrote a book about quality. It’s called Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. As Persig writes, his book has little to do with Zen and not much to do with motorcycle maintenance either. This was a very important book for me as I grappled with certain philosophical concepts in my youth. In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the main protagonist goes catatonic after getting caught in his self-made vortex of contradiction around the idea of quality. As a fellow college instructor, I can relate to his descent into catatonia, although I was never able to quite make it all the way to its deepest reaches as Phaedrus (the eventual name of his protagonist) did.

 

The way we use the concept of quality these days drives me a little crazy but I’m not going to go grammar nazi and chastise all the unfortunates among us who constantly misuse the term or simply use it as a synonym for good. These days, quality stands for good. We seem to have lost the ability to qualify quality. Does Quality Foods refer to mediocre quality foods, poor quality foods or high quality foods? Well, that’s a silly question, isn’t it? Of course, the owners of Quality Foods mean it to refer to high quality foods. Any other conclusion would be nonsense. I presume that if we want to point out that a product or service is of poor quality we have to include the adjective ‘poor’ to qualify quality. Quality used by itself now means good. Any reference to any other kind of quality must be qualified with an adjective. Still pisses me off because it’s such a denial of the potential poverty of quality but I guess that’s just the way language evolves.

 

So, now I want to apply the concept of quality to morality. Can we talk about the quality of moral precepts? Can we come up with a hierarchy of moral precepts that go from good to evil or are all moral precepts supposed to be good. What does it mean to be a moral person? To what does ‘morality’ refer? I turn to this last question now, the others I deal with later and in subsequent posts.

 

The dictionary that comes with the Mac operating system defines morality as ‘principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.’ The Miriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary gives a “Simple Definition of morality [as]

  • beliefs about what is right behavior and what is wrong behavior
  • the degree to which something is right and good: the moral goodness or badness of something.”

 

Fair enough. That seems straightforward, but is it? Are we born knowing the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? If you believe that you probably also believe you were born knowing how to speak English. Not likely. Good and bad are social constructs and can only exist socially.

 

Obviously any judgment of behaviour can only be made when more or less discrete behaviours are compared with one another. The concept of morality cannot apply to an individual’s behaviour divorced from its social context. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ are inherently relative concepts. There are no behaviours that I know of that can be universally and consistently viewed as good or bad. You might argue that killing and rape are universally and always bad. If you did, you’d be wrong. Killing is only bad in certain contexts particularly when it is unsanctioned by the state[1]. In certain cases, such as in military combat, a soldier may be court-martialled for not obeying a direct order to kill an enemy combatant. In many contexts, killing is expected of one, so killing is not a universal bad. In fact, it would be considered morally reprehensible not to kill if it meant putting innocent people in danger. No matter how strongly we may be repulsed by it, rape is also morally ambivalent and in certain contexts is considered a duty. The Bosnian War was the scene of mass rapes perpetrated by combatants who were given direct orders to do so by their commanding officers.[2]

 

In Emile Durkheim’s work, morality is a word that describes how to measure the intensity of our connections to our societies. I add that it’s used to judge the quality of individual behaviour as it aligns with overall social (including sexual), political and economic values. It stands to reason then that in a class based society[3] moral judgments of behaviour will need to be made in a context where, as Marx noted, the ideas of the ruling class are the ruling ideas.[4]

 

To be continued…

 

Up next, morality and sexuality. I touched on this briefly in my last post, but I want to consider how important moral judgments are around sexuality.

Following that, I want to explore the politics of morality or why poor people are considered to be moral degenerates and made to feel shame and guilt for their situation.

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[1] The ‘state’ is one of those words that elicits controversy. I once did a graduate course decades ago now where the only task we had was to define the state. Not a simple task as it turns out.

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/bosnia-war-crimes-the-rapes-went-on-day-and-night-robert-fisk-in-mostar-gathers-detailed-evidence-of-1471656.html

[3] I won’t question the popular unquestioning definition of society here. I’ll leave that for a future blog post. Harold Adams Innis is a masterful critic of the conventional definition of society. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Harold Innis’ work and it’s available on my blog.

[4] Of course, the ruling class is not homogeneous, it evolves over time, gaining and losing power in times and places. Still, there are some basic precepts and expectations of behaviour that we find are fairly ubiquitous in societies where the capitalist mode of production predominates.

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1)

We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1) OR: What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?

 

One of the most popular perspectives in sociology from the 1930s until the late 60s was structural-functionalism.  Some people are still functionalists but they’re usually pretty quiet about it these days.  Functionalism has a long history in Western thought but structural-functionalism is of more recent American vintage.  Functionalism was an early European anthropological perspective that was adopted enthusiastically by the American sociologists Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton.  Functionalism or structural-functionalism are often uses interchangeably but it’s not my aim here to discuss the distinction or the similarity between these terms.  I have ulterior motives.

 

I start this with a reference to sociology and functionalism and that’s because I’m a sociologist, at least according to the document hanging on my wall in my office.  But functionalism has counterparts in all scientific disciplines.  Some disciplines seem to still embrace the concepts at least at an elementary level and use the perspective in teaching.  As far as I know in human biology classes there is still talk of anatomy and physiology, that is, of the structure of human organs, cells, systems, etc., and their functions.  I know that in anthropology there is still reference to the various aspects or institutions of cultures and their function or role in the lives of those cultures.  In fact, in sociology, that is also true.  Most introductory texts break up society into parts, education, religion, family, economy, polity, art, etc., and the role they play together to keep a society functioning properly or in equilibrium, which is the ideal social state according to sociological functionalists and other scientists too for that matter.

 

There is some validity to the structural-functionalist perspective, but it’s limited.  The perspective has been overwhelmed by much more relativistic perspectives such as the so-called interactionist perspectives but I’ll explore that some other day.  It’s certainly true that human bodies have organs and they function more or less well.  Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917) actually referred to sociology as social pathology or the study of what goes wrong with societies or how they get out of kilter.  He also referred to sociology as the study of morality but I’ll also leave that for another day.  The point here is that in sociology a major perspective sees society as being composed of parts, which serve a function more or less effectively.   The family is supposed to serve the function of socializing children and providing a warm, emotionally supportive environment in which children grow up.  Religion is supposed to look after our spiritual needs.  Education has the task of preparing each generation of people to undertake their adult roles.  The economy is supposed to take care of our biological needs for food and other material things we need to live in a particular society at a particular time.  If all the parts of society are doing their job, everything is cool and society is working as it should.  Of course, I wrote earlier that this perspective has limitations and it does.  One of the main limitations is that it treats society as an organism that stands by itself and is, in a sense, sui generis (self generated).  I’m being somewhat unfair to functionalism, but not essentially.  But that’s not the only problem with functionalism.  It wants society to be balanced, but it often isn’t and some institutions or parts of society don’t always do what they’re supposed to do in the way that they’re supposed to.  Robert K. Merton understood that and came up with the idea that some things like families are sometimes dysfunctional and the task of the sociologist is to show how things can be put right again.  Well, today I want to look at dysfunction in ‘the economy.’

 

First, I want to be clear that I’m not a functionalist in the least but that doesn’t prevent me from writing about ‘society’ from that perspective.  It’s a simplistic perspective because it’s basically ahistorical, but for the moment just pretend that you’ve gone into your doctor’s office and she’s trying to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with you.  Pretend that you’re a doctor of society trying to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with your society.  What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?  This is not a rhetorical question.  I’m interested in your answer.  Write a comment.