Insights and Healing with Patrick Moore

Liberal or Conservative — Are you a Be-er or a Become-er?
March 31, 2016, 12:05 pm
Filed under: Education, essence, Plato and Platonism

In the last twenty years I have had a burst of reading. I am simply thirsty for knowledge and I read as widely as possible, fiction and nonfiction, old and new, spiritual and secular, from classics like Plato to current debates in education philosophy. I was surprised to read that philosophers, educators and political writers now equate Plato with a conservative position. Wait — Plato is a conservative?



The surprising statement comes from professors who write for education journals, the (free online) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and for deep-analysis magazines like The American Interest. These scholars agree, Liberal means tolerance for diverse thinking with a faith that progress results in open-minded inquiry—not progress toward any known or knowable best state, but random, undirected improvement, always improving in uncharted ways. Conservative means holding steadfast to timeless values—the goal is known in advance and has already been charted long ago.


Plato wrote and taught before this debate between liberalism and conservatism began.


Plato’s big idea was that, behind the appearances we see with our eyes, there exist “essences of things.” The essences are perceivable but not with the five senses, at least not directly. People have essences. Tables and horses have essences. And virtues have essences. There is an essence of you, of me, and of Patience. Plato wrote that essences are timeless and do not change. Patience is not something that progresses. it is now, what it always was and always will be.


I doubt if Plato intended to take a political stance with his model of essences. But if you talk about Plato’s essences today in regard to education, you would be labeled a conservative. Conservative educators would like children to be taught timeless values and virtues. Liberal educators would like children to be taught to see things from different perspectives and draw their own conclusions, conclusions that are not considered “true,” but to draw new conclusions again and again as they age and develop. On the surface it sounds like the ever-changing-different-perspectives model goes against Plato. So today, if you are an educator, the word “Plato” is a code word for “conservative.” Discovering this over and over in my reading, that Plato is a Conservative, truly surprised me. It shocks me. I need to figure this out!


In today’s world, your answer to the question, “Are you a liberal or a conservative,” defines who you are. It’s not a preference, it’s a defining characteristic. If you change your mind, you are considered a phony. Or terribly stupid. Anyone could as you your position on five issues and from your answers tell you who you are—why don’t you know who you are? What’s wrong with you?


I think the needing to know who you are, whether you are the L type or the C type of person, began after Plato. But not long after. Aristotle was a student at Plato’s Academy. Aristotle came up with his own philosophy, with some borrowing but much disagreement with Plato. Aristotle described there is a difference between Being and Becoming.


I think Aristotle turned Plato’s structure of essences into an ideology, so that Aristotle could promote his opposing ideology. (I could be wrong) Aristotle pegged Plato into the pigeonhole, “Being.” Aristotle sort of said his old teacher Plato stood for Being while reality is more of a “Becoming” process. Aristotle noticing the difference between Being and Becoming, made one view correct and the other view incorrect. He made them into ideologies or positions. From that day forward, now you’re either a Be-er or a Becom-er. Suddenly it was a competition between two kinds of people. Us and Them. The position that everything has a timeless essence, suddenly became a questionable view, held by a certain type of person, which in time became labeled a conservative person. A person like Aristotle who saw things as becoming, became in time labeled a liberal person. No longer may one person consider both perspectives, being and becoming. Now you have to pick sides. You are one or the other. Your friends and enemies are determined by your choice.


Now that Being and Becoming have been reframed into opposing sides in a three-millennia-long war, which side is correct? Does each human have a timeless, unchanging essence? Is this universe impregnated with a handful of timeless values? Experience does not seem to verify this. If anything, experience appears to show us the opposite. Our lives do not appear to converge upon any timeless characteristics that are uniquely “me.” Our life seem rather to diverge, than to converge. It appears we get to define ourselves. It appears our choices define us. It appears that life on this planet occurred through bloody battles of competition, “red in tooth and claw.” If there are any timeless values, why were those values not in place when the violent collisions between stars formed the heavy elements, when the dinosaurs were wiped out by an asteroid, when homo-sapiens performed genocide on the neanderthals? If this is a moral, ethical or virtuous universe, why do Machiavellian strategies continue to work? Why do the greedy get more and more and the virtuous die starving? No, this does not appear to be a universe where virtues are inherent in the very fabric of the cosmos. Plato was wrong, and Liberals are right. The struggle of life has no goal, aim or purpose, but progresses only by practicalities. If there is going to be any meaning or purpose to life, its going to be meaning and purpose that we (humans) decide to impose upon it. Through our choices and influences, we can gradually, with laws and governments, make life more and more meaningful, purposeful, if that’s what we all want, or at least more enjoyable. This appears to be the kind of universe we live in, by all evidence of the senses and understanding of natural history.


There are holdouts to the old view. However. Today those who believe each human has a timeless unchanging essence that a lifespan may converge upon, are mostly religious people. They believe this mostly because their religions tell them to, not because they are observing life with the open mind of a scientist. Religions often teach that each person has a soul, this soul was created by God in a particular unique configuration before the person was born, and the person’s life converges upon his soul’s predesigned characteristics as he lives a good religious life. Today, it is religion that teaches virtue is timeless. The reason virtue is timeless, to a religious person, is because God made the universe that way. The virtues are well-defined and remain today and in the future, the same as they were six thousand years ago when God made the universe. In the religious view, Plato is wrong because he did not assign the essences to the proper Creator.


But aside from religious people who believe this way because authorities tell them to believe this way, there are few people in today’s world who believe in timeless essences, based only upon observing the world and examining one’s life experiences. In the open-minded inquiry approach, Plato is wrong because we don’t feel like an essence, we don’t see essences, we don’t converge and we don’t see convergence. We see divergence. How could Plato have been so wrong, we wonder.


And so the problem of what (and how!) to teach the youth becomes a partisan battle between the religious who are conservative and the liberals who are anti-religious. If anything is timeless and everlasting, it seems to be this debate of how to teach the youth! In its current compartmentalization, this debate is unresolvable and its opponents will continue to fight each other forever.


But back to Plato. How could Plato have been so stupid as to say that people have a timeless essence, when anyone examining his or her own life can see that we become who we are by steering ourselves?! Life does not feel like my essence is leading me toward the things I become. Life feels like a big random experiment. I have made many choices experimentally, liked or disliked the outcomes, and steered myself. Because I want to have more of the outcomes i liked and less of the outcomes I disliked, I have become who I currently am by deliberately choosing ways that experience showed lead to the outcomes I liked. I am who I am because I prefer to be this kind of person — right now. My preferences change over time and so I will become different later. We create ourselves! We are not created by some other Being ouside us, nor by some indestructible thing inside us! I am in charge of my life! Not some blueprint inside me! Not some Large White Guy outside me! How horrible it would be to be created in advance! Ick! What was Plato thinking?


If anyone were to take Plato seriously again, the new Platonist would have to explain how a person’s experienced life would feel this way (it feels self-created, improvised one step at a time) while an inner essence exists. And species—are they also guided by an essence of each species? All observation says “No!” It certainly appears that species become what they are by random mutations, improvising around random problems and random environments, not converging on a predetermined state but ever wandering in new states that ever better match changing environments. A new Platonist would have to explain how species come to be what they are, how heavy elements come into existence from violent supernovae, how the four forces came to be, all from essences, when these things all appear so random, unplanned, divergent and improvised.




Oddly, we now say “faith-based” when we mean people who believe in Beings beyond our comprehension, capable of creating beings like ourselves, capable of creating virtues and of infusing virtues into this universe along with meaning and purpose. In Plato’s time, everyone believed in such Beings. You didn’t need “faith” to believe in Beings. In those times if you were to propose things happened randomly, random-believers would be the “faith-based” people. In those times, observation of the world, events, and one’s own life seemed to confirm meaning, purpose, intelligent design and Beings. The view of Beings was at that time the practical, pragmatic view and the view of random chance required “faith” in opposition to reason. How ironic that the terms “pragmatic” and “faith-based” can swap ideologies in a matter of two or three thousand years! Because now it’s pragmatic to believe in “Random” and now it requires faith to believe in “Beings Purposefully Creating.” What does this swap say about the human body of knowledge? Is past thinking faulty, and current knowledge converging on the more accurate truth that has always been there? If so, does that make you a Platonist (converging on Truth)? To remain a liberal, you would have to say today’s opinion that “everything is random, without inherent meaning” is only today’s opinion, and tomorrow’s “progressives” may progress a diverging view that refutes random purposelessness.


What I am observing from life, from evidence and from my own experiences is, that Random is no more pragmatic or rational than A Creator Being. Both positions are equally faith-based, and equally experiential. You may disagree of course. I am only sharing what my personal life experiences lead me to conclude, as you would grant me if you are a liberal.


My observations of my life experiences and evidence leads me to a position of scope-agnosticism. As a finite person with only so many billions of neurons, I am like a computer that has only a certain processor and a certain amount of RAM that can do cerrtain types of calculations but not others. My brain is simply not equipped to say, once and for all, what kind of universe this is. The universe is far larger than my brain. And I am only referring here to the finite universe assumed to be fifteen billion light-years in diameter. Even that is too large for me to know conclusiviely with my finite brain. Then to consider infinite things? God? Randomness operating upon an infinite set of infinite matter, infinite energy and infinite kinds of forces? Anything could happen! For me to think, from my position as a finite brain, I am capable of today determining which of these infinite choices is correct, is sheer hubris. How full of myself I would have to be (and have been many times) to believe I know how it all works!


I define scope-agnosticism as the claim that you and I are not capable of determining from here those things that are much larger or smaller than human individuals in size and scope. Scope-agnostics would be suspicious about theological claims, most cosmological claims, and claims about the very small such as quantum physics and about the infinitely small such as singularities that supposedly exist inside black holes and at the onset of the big bang. Scope-agnostics would be willing to engage in some debates that do not refer back to things outside our scope. For example, we all feel we humans have rights but what do our rights derive from? If our rights are “endowed by their creator,” “inalienable“ or even “Natural Rights deriving fom Nature’s God,” a scope-agnostic would have to say, “that doesn’t convince me. Do you have any derivations of human rights that are based upon planet-sized foundations, or smaller?”


My finite brain is capable of a few theorems in geometry but not all mathematics. My finite brain is capable of a few maxims for fairness in relationships, but don’t ask me where “rights” derive from! My finite brain is capable of a few maxims for living a life that I’ll be glad I lived, when I am elderly, sitting on the porch rocking chair, progressing into the beyond, looking back at my life–but the meaning of life (or lack of meaning) of All life at All times? How would a finite person like myself be in a position to say?


Still, I do love to ponder the bigger questions and stretch my finite brain, even if I have little certainty about the conclusions I may draw today. I do know that all the conclusions I drew in previous decades, I now consider juvenile, and so I assume the conclusions I draw today will seem juvenile to me ten years from now. Still, without pondering, how will I arrive at my future perspectives? I believe in progress! Is my progress towards something? Or is my progress away from something? Is my progress convergent or divergent? Ask me when I am sitting on the porch with one foot in the grave.


Here is what I think today (and I may grit my teeth in a decade when I re-read this position): There is being and there is becoming. It is silly to side with one over the other. This universe is neither a Being universe nor a Becoming universe but a universe that has both properties (and perhaps many more we have not yet considered). Being is poorly understood. Or perhaps it was better understood 2,400 years ago and that understanding has been covered with a blanket. It has gone subterranean.


Becoming is the current (in recent centuries) rage and all the talk. Water is not being. Hydrogen and Oxygen become Water, and Water becomes Hydrogen and Oxygen. Neither direction is absolute or inherent—you can make the two become the one, or you can make the one become the two—your choice. This fact makes it seem unlikely there is an essence of water. Our era believes water is nothing more than hydrogen and oxygen, which may combine into different things besides water. But the previous era believed water was being. The next era may be another Being era. We may go through cycles of Being and Becoming that have a wavelength of 2,400 years.


While it is not currently en vogue to say so, there is still an essence of water, timeless, that has nothing to do with the particles of matter that (in experienced time) make up the molecule. There is Being water, and there is Becoming water. Neither is truer than the other. Both. Becoming is an occurrence, a process, a do-ing, and being is an existence. (I oversimplify “existence.” Spinoza says essences may “be” even while they do not “exist.” Your essence continues to be, even during those times when you do not have a body and mind that exist in timed history, in located space. This is why those who believe in reincarnation claim Spinoza as a supporter to that model.) This is a universe that has both being and doing, and we are in an era that focuses more on doing.


Liberals are the people who focus attention predominantly upon the processes of doing, especially progressive change. That is a good thing to be aware of, to be able to focus attention upon. Unfortunately Liberals also deny the value of being, or deny being even exists.


Conservatives are the people who focus attention predominantly upon being, especially timeless values and virtues. This is a good thing to be able to focus upon. Unfortunately conservatives deny the value of becoming, or consider it a threat, evil or anti-virtuous.


Why can’t liberals and conservatives just agree they prefer to focus on progress, or virtues, without hating and denying the other way? I think the trouble is because we identify, we make liberal OR conservative our identity, rather than two skills we all possess. Liberal and conservative are not who a person is. These are considered to be ideologies of what the universe is made of, or how the universe operates. But that’s also not accurate. They are simply preferences of where one’s attention is predominantly focused. Habits of mind. While it is good to be good at one habit of mind or the other, it is excellent to have skill at both habits of mind and to use them both regularly.


In education, should we indoctrinate the youth to value the timeless values? Or should we provide them challenging experiences in which they learn to think for themselves and make their own progress?


The debate is not really as life-and-death as the debaters make it seem. The people with extreme views are raising their voices from insecure fear. When they feel more secure about their positions, they can be more tolerant of children being exposed to both liberal and conservative education in balance.


The fear that conservatives have is that allowing students open-minded inquiry will not lead them toward virtues. Because that has not been their personal experience. In their own youths, open minded inquiry led them away from virtues, not toward them! They fear to allow youth to think for themselves because they fear independent thinking will not converge upon virtue. This is unfortunate. A true conservative would have enough faith in conservatism, that they could afford to let sons go off and find their own ways, and be prodigal sons, returning in time to the true values. Conservatives should have faith that open, experimental experience in this universe will confirm the timeless values. There is no need to fear youth experimenting with alternative views, if you have faith that values and firtues are everpresent. Conservative fear comes from conservatives who are not conservative enough! They doubt their own position. If they believed their own position, they wouldn’t fear dialogue and experimenting with different views.


The same happens with liberals: fear derives from insecurity about the liberal agenda. The fear liberals have is that the virtues conservatives would list, are not always virtuous, useful or even safe. And this is a valid fear. “Loyalty to Authority,” for example, was considered a virtue in the early twentieth century. But as WWII showed us, youth indoctrinated to be loyal to leaders, blindly followed a bad leader who had a real chance at taking over the world. What a horrible world we would now live in, had that bad leader taken his loyal followers to their utmost agenda! Liberals have good reason to be concerned that the list of virtues is not yet perfect. Should “loyalty to authority” be indoctrinated into our youth, or not? Courage? Patriotism? Pride? Reverence? Transparency? Turning the other cheek? Since it is so difficult for people in our time to come to agreement of even one virtue that would make such a list, liberals unfortunately consider such listing to be horribly dangerous. Liberals have almost developed a superstitious fear, as if it is bad luck to even talk about the listing of virtues. However, a true liberal should have enough faith in the inherent progress of open-minded inquiry, to allow students to ask themselves, “do timeless virtues exist? And if they might, what virtues would make the list?”


What if each year, teachers asked students to make up their own list of virtues? At the end of the year students could evaluate their own lists, crossing off or keeping items or putting new ones on their list. Each year they could modify their lists, keep them or throw them away. Students would explain in their own words what they gained from this experience. Educators would not tell students what is good or bad, right or wrong to have on their lists, or even whether it is good or bad to have such lists, but only encourage the experimenting. No educators would tell students that having such lists, or not having them, is inherently good. Liberals would feel safe and confident that open-minded inquiry through experimentation, even regarding virtues, will of course lead to positive progress.


To scare youth away from a potential way of thinking, goes against liberal values. Liberals should have some faith in liberality, that allowing youth to experiment with their own virtue lists will lead to progress. In fact, if students after many years of making virtue lists, come to their own conclusion that there are no timeless virtues that can be listed, liberals will be happy they had the students go through this exercise.


I am glad we have liberal educators. I am glad we have conservative educators. Both may serve our children well. Both serve children poorly when they operate from fears, doubts about their own ideology. When both have secure confidence in their own ideology, they feel safe in allowing students to experiment with the other view. Because they “know” this universe will ultimately lead experimenting students toward the truer view.


It appears our culture is “a house divided.” There are many “issues” that we are divided over, but the issues come down to more basic and simple ideologies or ways of thinking. My current thought is that neither of the two essential ways of thinking is so true, that it excludes the other way of thinking from having any value or existence. Neither way of thinking is evil. There is positive value to both ways of thinking!


By considering the value of our opponents’ ways of thinking, we heal the divisions in ourselves, our countries, our species, and our planet. Perhaps this was part of the meaning of the three slogans, “love others as yourself,” “love your enemies,” and “love others as I have loved you.” Perhaps these slogans were intended to be ongoing exercises. This “love” is not something that I can feel complacent I already “do,” but I need to keep doing, onging. The exercise is to value others’ ways of thinking as fervently as I value my own, especially those views of my “opponents” as the heroes of old demonstrated.