Jeff Mason's Meditations
1. The Art of Living
The art of living is a skill in negotiating the opportunities and pitfalls of life. It comprehends how to work with whatever comes one's way and make the best of the challenges, joys and setbacks that come with living and dying. This art is not just a way of thinking, not just maintaining a positive attitude, though that is important; it is an art of finding a path through life that avoids or turns aside what is bad and makes something better of it.
Circumstances vary, but it is possible to live artfully in all of them. This includes trying to change what can be changed for the better, and not to lament, but accept, what can not be changed. The art of living is distinguished from all the trappings of an outwardly successful life. Possessions and financial successes may not prevent profound unhappiness for an individual, failure in personal relationships, or unawareness of the beauties of the physical world.
To live artfully is to live thoughtfully, act justly, and to speak the truth, recognizing what is of genuine value, and ignoring what is trivial. It is to be in the habit of doing and saying the right things in the right manner, with good timing and a realistic appraisal of the circumstances.
The Greeks called this "sophrosuné", soundness of mind, discretion, moderation in feelings and actions, and self-control. These character traits, as Aristotle said, come to us not by nature, but by training and habit. Since we live by nature, but act through character, there can be an art of living-well or badly, of making the best or worst of life. We can learn from those who have gone before us, and, if we are lucky, from a few of those now living who display the art of living. It is an interesting question whether we could learn it by ourselves, without any role models to guide us.
Meditation 2: The Fiction of Forevermore
Everyone knows that things change. Nothing much seems to stay the same. Nevertheless, the mountains in whose shadow you were born, or the ocean in which you swam, remain much as they were. People may build up towns in the mountains and resorts by the beach, but compared to comings and goings of humans and their creations, the sea and the mountains are forever.
Metaphors of forever abound in our common language. Especially where love is concerned, the songs sing of it outlasting the sea and the mountains. When the lover pledges love that will last until the mountains run into the sea, we are to think that they never will. We have the idea of forevermore. Also, when we hear of the eternal renown of great poets, artists, philosophers, or political or military leaders, we think they will be remembered forever. And when people speak of their children as a gift to the future, there is an idea of forevermore in the back of their minds.
These are fictions, but endearing ones and enduring ones. There is no such thing as forevermore. The mountains will erode. The sea will dry up or freeze, the river change it's course. The artists and the generals will be forgotten. It is only because our lives are so short that we imagine that there are some things that never change. When you start listening for the phrases of forevermore, you will hear them in many places, but if they are just fictions, then why do we need them so much?
Meditation 3: Is Happiness Overrated?
It seems to be a given that people want to be happy. But is it? If that were the case, why do people hurt themselves? Why do they make war against one another and bring unspeakable terror on each other's heads? Why do they commit murder, suicide or find slower ways to kill themselves? Isn't it because they all want to be happy?
This might seem paradoxical at first. However, a little reflection reveals that for most people happiness is matter of moments, and most always in the past. It is sometimes hard to realize that you are living through the good times, the happy times, until they are over. Only after the golden age has passed is it recognized as having been made of gold, somewhat as in the old lament that youth is wasted on the young.
Maybe happiness is overrated. Maybe if people forgot about happiness with a capital AH@, they would be much happier. Comparing reality to happiness that is out of reach can lead to depression and sometimes even suicide. Despair follows the realization that a certain conception of happiness is unattainable in this world. At this point philosophy ends and religion begins. The alternative is to live without longing for the unattainable.
Meditation 4: Having, Doing, Being
It is hard to be a shadow flitting across the face of the sun and disappearing from sight. This flight of life is slowed by Having and Doing, but stopped by Being. Our need to acquire "things" and to surround ourselves with mementos of the past is an attempt to Be someone, a person with an identity and a history. We give ourselves a property qualification. At the end of life all our possessions pass into other hands, just as our Being itself passes into the memories of others.
To seek one's Being in doing is more fulfilling and more true. Through action we acquire skills instead of "things." These possessions come to life not in the having but the doing itself. One becomes an accountant, for example, by learning how to read and write, how to handle numbers, how to analyze, judge and evaluate financial data. It is by jumping through the appropriate hoops that accountants receive their qualification, and similarly for other professionals and skilled workers of all kinds.
Having looks for Being in the past. Even dreams of making a fortune and buying all kinds of "things" have a backward looking cast, since the satisfaction that comes from possessions is always after he fact. Doing looks for Being in the future, since actions have aims that the actions are designed to bring about. Therefore, even though we are more secure in our own abilities
than in our material possessions, we are not totally secure in either of them. Being is something we wish to possess but never can attain completely while we are alive. Sometimes, however, on a sunny or rainy day, when we least expect it, something will appear that is so beautiful or sublime that it takes our selves away. We forget our possessions and material worries. We forget what we have to do. For a moment, time is put away and we are left standing with the ground beneath our feet and the sky over our heads. This may be as close to Being as we ever get.
Meditation 5: The Art of Conversation
A stock complaint of the last two or three centuries concerns the death of conversation. This does not mean that no one talks anymore. Indeed people talk a lot, and when not talking they listen to other people talk. Talking is not the same as conversation. It is easy to talk to someone without entering into a genuine relationship with him or her. Two people can talk at one another and use conversation just to vent their feelings. They wait their turn to vent, and don't really listen to what the other is saying, and why should they, since the other person is doing the same thing they are?
People speak to each another for many reasons, and they do many things with the words they speak. Straightforward communication of information is one of the primary uses of speech. Others are to give commands or make requests. Language is useful in these kinds of speaking. Think of communication in commercial settings where words are spoken and money changes hands.
When people don't need to use language to accomplish practical ends, then conversation is possible, as well as idle chat and gossip. What is the difference, and why is conversation an art? Conversation is a true dialogue that is open to its own horizons and not congested by dogma. It is a shared exploration of questions and theories. Idle chat and gossip fill the same non-otherwise-engaged time that conversation fills, but it is merely a way of killing or spending time with someone, and not doing something special in talking together that the art of conversation brings about. Whereas conversations develop over time, chat and gossip become repetitious and ultimately boring. Conversation is an art because it takes practice and skill to elicit thought from talk, to share freely the gifts of language to move thoughts and emotions in the education of our lives.
Meditation 6: On Having an Open Mind
We all pride ourselves on having an open mind, but when it comes to dogmatic beliefs, our minds close and become stuck. A dogmatic mind is like a crashed computer, only the static last image remains on the screen. It is nothing to do with etymology, but I see a dogmatic mind as a bulldog that never lets go of what it fastens its teeth into.
So what is so bad having a dogmatic closed mind, and what is so good about having a non-dogmatic open mind? It is impossible to answer this question without taking sides. My side is that of the open mind. Why is this? It is because dogmatism breeds intolerance. Like ideology, dogmatism puts blinkers on what its adherents can see, disables their questioning faculties, and breeds fervor and fanaticism.
Listen to the debates between the political contenders. The issues involved are contentious enough to get people angry. It is easy for feelings to run high when the questions touch people's fundamental beliefs, their fundamental likes and dislikes. It is good that we have politics as a legislated process, for otherwise there would be fighting in the streets.
So what is good about having an open mind? First, having an open mind does not mean that one never comes to any convictions in life. It is perfectly possible to have an open mind and live a very principled life, without holding one's beliefs dogmatically. Having an open mind means being prepared to question even your most central beliefs if there is occasion to do so. It means being open, when the time comes, to having your mind changed by an argument better than one's own. It means being able to think both sides of an issue, both the side you think is true and the side you think is false. It also means being able to suspend your beliefs, to play devil's advocate, and to detach yourself somewhat from your own beliefs, actions and feelings. Only living with an open mind gives us a chance to grow and change, for change is inevitable, while growth, unfortunately, is not.
Meditation 7: The Reflective Life
The Greek philosopher, Socrates, famously stated that the unreflective life is not worth living. To which can be opposed the view that ignorance is bliss. Suppose that such reflection reveals a life that is not particularly worth living? Perhaps, since thoughts can multiply discontents, it would be better never to start thinking in the first place. It is not always pleasant to engage in much critical self-examination. However, if you do start thinking about the larger contexts of life and ask the big questions, there seems to be no end to it, and it becomes impossible to see where the process of thinking will lead.
Most of the time active people are a million miles from philosophizing. They turn to religion or a political ideology when they want to rest from the struggle of life, but are unready to go to sleep. Instead of doing philosophy, they choose to rest in faith or a set of beliefs rather than make the dubious effort of comprehensive thinking. Here in the West, people become philosophical at the end of long parties, in the early hours when alcohol or drugs have burned through some fears and daily preoccupations. They reflect on their lives from a disengaged perspective. It takes that special time and consciousness to jerk them from their quotidian (mundane) existence.
The appearance of philosophy in life arises from an act of radical reflection, and that act is purely human and imaginative, not one demanded by nature. We can live without systematic philosophizing, just as we did for thousands of years. The busy world of staying alive and propagating the species occupies the other animals when they are not sleeping, whereas philosophy takes up an intermediate position, like the twilight world between sleeping and waking. The reflective attitude arises by an act of detachment from the world, yet it remains mentally active, critical and questioning. It is for this reason that philosophers have been pictured as walking around with their heads in the clouds, while they ignore the world around them. However, we cannot blame them for this, because the founding act of philosophy distances people from the natural world into which they are born. The reflective life begins in an act of alienation, and whether it can overcome that rift by thought alone is itself a philosophical question.
Meditation 8: Leisure
There is more and more leisure time for many people and less and less leisure. Somewhere along the line, true leisure got confused with time off from work, time off from chores, time off from the routines of life. Work is a drag. Time off is fun. However, the usual understanding of leisure does contain the idea of a lack of time pressure, of not having to do something right now. We are often so busy that we forget to grab leisured moments outside socially defined contexts of spending leisure time.
Leisure is not about the objective passing of clock time and how much of it you have to do nothing in particular. True leisure is an approach or an attitude to the time that you have, whether you are working or not. It involves slowing down, not rushing or pushing through time, not letting the clock push you around.
You can find leisure in the dentist's reception room, the minutes you are waiting for the checkout line to clear, the 30 seconds you are put on hold. You can find it gazing at a sunset, walking down the street, or bending down to tie your shoe. At its heart is a savoring of the moment, lingering in the present rather than pressing ahead into the future, or being preoccupied by the past. We cannot always live this way, of course. There are many situations, often part of work, that do require thoughts of past and future and involve timing, attention and concentration. Leisure is good because it refreshes us for the tasks of a complicated demanding world, but if all life were leisure, it would get boring. Fortunately, few of us will ever have to worry about that.
Meditation 9: Pessimism and Optimism
A hundred years ago a certain kind of pessimism was fashionable. The thought was that the world of the past, of the Greeks and Romans, of our legendary beginnings was over. Science took the mystery out of mysteries and left us with only our own ignorance, and this we can rectify as best we can. Our modern civilization robs life of its meaning while at the same time digs away at the supports of its own activity.
The pessimist expects that disaster is the natural outcome of the human adventure. The optimist lives in the same world as the pessimist but expects better things. It is not that the optimist doesn't recognize that disasters happen, but they happen to others. Pessimists feel that the deck is stacked against them, that if something is to go wrong, it is likely to go wrong for them.
Pessimism turns into a weariness of the world and all the world's business. Life is painful and short. People are basically selfish and greedy, and you can't trust them. What can go wrong will go wrong. Don't build up your hopes, for hopes are only the dreams of fools. Give up on life and it will finally give up on you, much to your relief, since the death of hope is also the end of despair.
Optimism chooses to believe against all the evidence of the pessimist that everything is for the best, that the trials and obstacles of life are here to teach us wisdom. There is either a divine providence that arranges everything for the best, or nature herself can be our guide. Look for the positive in everything. Keep your chin up. Hope for the best and don't despair.
Maybe both the pessimist and the optimist are partly right. The pessimist is right that death negates our best efforts, but wrong about what this means for human life. The optimist is right to live as though everything will turn out all right, though knowing that tragedy will strike. Perhaps it is safer to be a pessimist, because you are bound to be right in the end. Bad times come to everyone. It is riskier to be an optimist because the world can frustrate your expectations. Even so, and despite the inevitable end, it is better to live by making the best of what life offers, whether good or bad, than to hide from life in pessimistic resignation.
Meditation 10: Death
What is death to the living? Is it a veil through which we pass into another life? Is it a wall into which we inevitably crash, and from which there will be no looking back? Can we distinguish the thought of a time before we were born from that of a time after we are gone from this world? We no longer have anything to fear from being born. It has already happened. Why then do we fear death?
Death is nothing to the living, and it is precisely this "nothing" that we fear, precisely because we do not know what it is. How can one fear something that does not exist? Sometimes the fear of death is just a fear of dying, a fear of slowly or quickly losing everything that has made life dear, a fear of pain and dependency on others.
The meaning of death for the living is not exhausted by fear. The thought of death also brings sadness. Whatever the truth of religious assurances about an afterlife or reincarnation, the thought of one's own death and the death of everyone you know is still sad. So much beauty leaves this world with the death of each loved individual that however fervently one believes in its translation above, the sadness remains, otherwise funerals would be joyful occasions. The truth is that those who are left behind feel the lack. Death takes someone from the world and leaves a hole where that person used to live.
As for my own death, and yours, I am inclined to say with the philosopher Socrates that we should reserve our judgment about death, since we have no idea whether it is a good thing, a bad thing, or nothing. The trouble is that while you can conceive of your own death abstractly, it is impossible to imagine it, since to imagine is still to exist. Perhaps it is a help to think that no matter how bored you get with life, no matter how jaded, there is us at least one new thing for each of us to do, and that is to die. Timing is all. Until that time, live.
Meditation 11: Assisted Suicide
If assisted suicide were legal, it would be possible to make a date with death. People could choose to say goodbye to their families, their friends and their lives all at the same time. If it were legal, an individual would no longer have to commit a lonely suicide, write a sad note and then take the pills, pull the trigger or jump off a chair into a noose. One could die with dignity, realizing that it is a right to choose to cease living and to have help in doing so.
Religion has been a key factor in preventing the legalization of suicide because it condemns ending one's life as a sin. People stoically have to bear the process of losing their powers one by one, slowly becoming racked by the pains of debilitating diseases, and wait for the end to come. Without the perspective of faith, this religious view makes little sense and should not involve itself with public policy. If one's religious beliefs prohibit suicide, that is fine, but the prohibition should no longer be mandatory for all. Whether or not there is an afterlife, what possible reason is there for extreme suffering when the desire to live has gone?
Of course, not just anyone should assist a person to die. The assistants should be licensed death planners and counselors. After the proper precautions are taken, people tired of pain and misery would be free to seek help to terminate their lives. These precautions include psychological counseling to ensure that the individual really does want to die and is not acting impulsively. They also include a watchdog body to make sure that old and handicapped people are not killed outright to save money for public hospitals and rest homes, not pressured into assisted suicide by the avaricious beneficiaries or stigmatized for refusing to do the Adecent thing.
We are living in an age of enlightenment where assisted suicide should be legal and people free to plan for their deaths by assisted suicide or palliative care. We would be spared the torment of watching our loved ones die in excruciating pain or mindless with pain killers. As for ourselves, if, in one's own steady eyes, infirmity or disease takes away the reason to continue living, then it is rational to contemplate the choice of an arranged death over a slow and painful one. The world would be a better place if human beings had that choice.
Meditation 12: The Most Terrible Thought
What are the worst things that can happen to a human being after dying? An afterlife in Hell? Repeatedly coming back to a painful earthly existence through reincarnation? Pure Extinction? With the possible exception of Pure Extinction, the other alternatives do seem quite terrible, but not as terrible, perhaps, as Friedrich Nietzsche's thought of the eternal return of our lives.
The theory that our lives repeat endlessly is based in cosmological speculation. Imagine that the universe starts out from the Big Bang. Later, gravity overcomes the force of the explosion and the universe contracts to a point where we have another Big Bang. This next universe expands, contracts, and the pattern is repeated to infinity. One time, the initial conditions a big bang will exactly resemble those that produced our present universe. Since the same causes have the same effects, everything will unfold just as it did before, and the universe will produce you and me just as we are now, with our personal histories intact. The result is that we will always live exactly the same life we led the other times this universe materialized. From birth to death we will repeat the life we live, and live it over and over without end and without relief.
Of course you will never remember the last time you read this meditation, but that is not the point. This Aphorism is really an exhortation to live our lives in such an inexhaustible way that we could bear to live it over again forever. The goal is to live and be able to say "Yes" to one's life in the face of its infinite repetition. I read this as a challenge for each of us to turn our lives into something like a complex work of art that not even an eternity of repetition can exhaust. As Nietzsche puts it at the end of Aphorism 341, AThe question in each and every thing, "Do you want this once more and innumerable times more?" would weigh upon your actions as the greatest stress. Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to crave nothing more fervently than this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?@
Meditation 13 The Life of Pleasure
The pursuit of pleasure has a bad name. It is associated with that old excuse to forget our responsibilities and have a good time, AEat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.@ The stereotype of the hedonist, the person who lives for pleasure and takes pleasure to be the overall good, is that of a dissipated voluptuary who lives a round of excess and vice.
When pleasures are mentioned, the first that come to mind are physical pleasures. These are like the pleasures of eating, drinking, having sex or doing drugs. The pleasures of music, art and drama also involve the senses. What links them together is a vital connection with the passing moment. Perhaps this is part of the reason that pleasure has had such a bad name in the history of philosophy. Pleasures are ephemeral. Whether unavoidable, like the physical pleasures of eating and breathing, or unnecessary, like the pleasures of ornament and ostentation, they all pass away.
The Epicureans were an ancient group of rational-minded philosophers who thought that pleasure is not to be despised. However, as a group, they have been tarred with the brush of crude physical hedonism like that associated with Roman orgies. In fact, the opposite is true. They argued that pleasure's bad name is not warranted. It is because we have invented the notion of eternity, gods and an afterlife that we are tortured by the transitoriness of all our pleasures. Without that baggage, we would seek pleasure and avoid pain, like the other animals. We would live more in the >now', acknowledging our ignorance of what has gone before, and of what will happen tomorrow. Rather than giving in to riotous pleasures, the Epicureans distinguished themselves by their reserved life style and the delight they took in conversation. The simple pleasures are the best, along with those of friendship and open talk. The pleasures of the senses are not to be despised, nor are they to take over a person's life. With that proviso, a rational way of living has a valued place for pleasure.
Meditation 14 Paradise Now
Of all the fragments of ancient wisdom that have come down to us, few are more known or less understood than the thought that paradise lies within us, if only we have eyes to see it. This is supposed to have a beauty rarely matched by the beauties that surround us in nature. Of course, the mean streets of our decayed urban areas, the miles of commercial development and housing tracts are not suggestive of paradise. The poor people who live there probably would not claim to be living in one. Yet if it is in our grasp, we must be able to seize it even there.
Now think of the other end of the economic ladder. Here are the people who can afford to surround themselves with beautiful houses and gardens. Surely, it will be in a garden that we find paradise. Take a drive to the leafier suburbs, look at the wonderful gardens, the trees, the mansions set back from the road.
The ancient Greek word “paradeisos” means “parkland.” The word was used to describe the land set aside for beauty and ease by Persian kings, separated by walls from wild nature and crop lands. Here you would find enchanting vistas down winding avenues, reflecting pools, fountains, statues, and flowering trellises to protect you from the sun. In the English variant, we find follies, the ruins of antique temples, gothic churches and Saxon watch towers. It was meant to be picturesque, and consciously designed to lead the eye a merry dance.
The idea is that to be surrounded by beauty calls forth a power to recognize it, and this, in turn, leads to the ennobling of the soul. Yet just because a person lives surrounded by natural beauty does not ensure the appreciation of paradise. To see natural beauty as paradise is partly what it means to find paradise within oneself. And there is paradise for anyone who can respond to natural beauty this way, even for those who live in unlikely places. The amazing thing is that there is so much beauty around us, and nothing but our own preoccupations and desires prevent us from seeing it. Paradise can be a small room with a view (or a shack) if it is a place where one is happy. The most beautiful garden is not paradise if the inhabitants are unhappy or too busy
to appreciate it.
Meditation 15 Pain and Grief
The one thing that human beings cannot stand is to suffer without knowing the reason why. If they suffer, a reason will be found, no matter what. However, there is no redress for those who are killed unjustly. Nothing that is done subsequently can make the slightest difference to the dead, or to those who crave for justice and retaliation. Anger and hate feed upon themselves, leading to destruction and death.
If this is so, then why can't we stop killing each other? Is the cycle never ending? Hate breeds hate, and the thought of those who have injured us rankles ever deeper in our souls. In the end there is nothing else to life but the fear of the hunted, and the anxiety of the hunters. To hurt others is to ask to be hurt oneself. We have known this for so long, but it makes little difference. Willingness to die is an invincible armor. The cause appears great.
Instead of retaliating instinctively, we should stop and ask the underlying reason that could lead to such hateful action. While there is never an excuse for hurting innocents, could we have contributed to the hate that caused it? Did the perpetrators resort to violence in order to get our attention? If so, we need to find a way to right our errors and extend a loving gesture, not a hateful one. Otherwise, the cycle of hate will never end. We must break with an unjust past. Only love can accept that past, and move on without bitterness and a desire for revenge. Sadly, all too many of those who have experienced injury and loss at the hands of others want to get even. It is hard to give up hate, even when pain and grief accompany hateful thoughts. The natural thing is to want revenge and the death of our enemies. This is why, instead of forgiveness, we want a reason to confirm us in our old beliefs and perpetuate the thinking that leads to fresh disasters.
We can conceive of a world that has put revenge behind it, as well as the reasons for revenge, but it is an ideal for which we must strive. There is nothing that prevents us from living in peace except our own attitudes and practices. We can hope that peace is possible, and strive to make it real. The alternatives are too horrible to contemplate for long, and too defeatist to accept.
Meditation 16 Perennial Philosophy
Philosophy has a history. It is the history of questions with no easy answers, no easy means of finding them, and perhaps no definite answers at all. Whether it makes sense to ask such questions is itself a philosophical question.
Perennial philosophy is the pursuit of knowledge through the contemplation of questions that have bothered human beings ever since they began to think. One is how to live a truly human life, a life worthy of our higher selves. By "higher self" I do not mean some "soul" existing in its own separate world, but rather the potential for a life that is more open and developed. These questions have not changed over the centuries because the human condition has not changed.
The human world has always been extremely complicated, despite the fact that ancient peoples seem to us to have lived simpler lives than ourselves. These complications arise because our genetic programming allows varying responses to the same situations. We have to integrate thoughtful contemplation and self-consciousness into our lives. This is no easy task, but
it has been ours ever since we have needed wisdom and good judgment to organize our perceptions, knowledge, thoughts and actions into a coherent and flourishing life. Before then, instincts were sufficient to our needs.
The "self" that we have, such as it is, is a creation of our lives, not a thing in its own right. Therefore, we can aim to develop that self to the point where like a butterfly leaving its chrysalis, we can leave the paths of our natural unthinking lives and take to higher ground in thought and actions. If we did not have to think about things, there would be no need for wisdom, no need for a "self" at all, let alone a "higher self". The secret of the perennial philosophy is that no matter how thoroughly we may plan for the future, unforeseen events happen, and it is only our own attitudes towards what happens that we can manage on our own. The love of wisdom infuses our attitudes with reasonable beliefs and knowledge and gives our judgments the best chance of being true.
Meditation 17: Time and Immortality
What is the fascination with immortality? What is the appeal of a life lived "always" and "forever?" Is it just the contrast with yesterday, today and tomorrow, the contrast with death and finitude? Like the fantasy of a ball that will fly through the heavens without ever coming to earth, we dream of a life immortal. Or do we? What would an immortal life be like? This is difficult to conceptualize. Immortality seems to be like the end of a Hollywood movie, when the good times are supposed to unroll in an uninterrupted stream. Of course, we never see what happens later. Two views are common. One is that an immortal life would be exactly like our present one, except that we would see no end to our days on earth. The hypothesis of reincarnation accommodates this view. An essential self, transcending time and space, passes forever through a succession of lived bodies, thus attaining a kind of immortality. Of course, if you cannot remember any previous lives, an awareness of this immortality is out of reach. Some say that they do "remember" previous lives, and that would give them a sense of it, though still a limited one. One would always be looking back. Future lives cannot be remembered. There is a limitless time stretching out before us, rather than a rapidly emptying hourglass. Some who believe in reincarnation also think that it is better not to be reborn at all, and that the end of our striving is a Great Peace. Like Heaven, this is hard to conceive. Even Dante, who was never criticized for lacking imagination, was less successful describing Heaven than he was in describing Hell and the realm in which time still holds sway, Purgatory. The meaning of our normal embodied lived time evaporates in the concept of eternity. On this account, immortal life is not going to be anything like the life we are now leading, one that is bounded by time, space and the necessity of living in an animal body. In this body, we cut a very small figure and then quickly disappear. Our experience of the continual death of living things confirms the ordinary view. It may be that we have a soul that is immortal even while the body dies, but it does not come into its own until after death. We have to be translated into immortal life held there eternally or timelessly. Dante picks the image of Heaven as a flower with many petals, and on each petal a saved soul sits singing the praises of the Lord for all eternity. Time vanishes. There are no more tomorrows, but just everlasting day. Do not forget to bring a sun shade. There may yet be another kind of immortality, the immortality of one life lived once, but forever and always and eternally. This is just the life each of us lives from day to day. The life so many of us are afraid to lose is, in fact, an inalienable possession. The illusion that we can lose our lives comes from the way that we are captured by a passing present due to embodied existence. Our sense of time is of its passing and our getting older. Willy Nilly we are swept along, unable to return. That is true, but back then it is all still going on, and nothing can make that time and its passing cease to be. The future is always open, but it will always be the future we have had in our lives, not one a thousand years from now. Immortality is simple consequence of living, whether we like it or not, and no blind faith is needed to possess it.
Meditation 18: Dualism
Dualism is the view that the mind and matter are distinct. Mind is conscious. Inert matter is not. Consciousness is the problem, because it seems to leave no trace in matter, but, like the rudder of a ship, slides through it without leaving a trace. But is mind distinct from living matter?
We have always been impressed by the difference that death makes to a person. One minute we have a conscious being, whatever we decide consciousness to be, and the next minute we have a mound of unfeeling flesh in a state of terminal decay. The consciousness is gone, we say, but the body remains.
Even without death, we are drawn to distinguish between mind and body. Right now, it is true, I am not constantly making this distinction, since my body is functioning to enable me to write this meditation. However, if my hands became arthritic, I would feel alienated from them. If they had to be cut off, I would not see part of myself lying in the bowl, but something fleshy that used to be part of my body.
Dualism is a specific example of the more general distinction between me and something else. It is a moveable line. For example, I normally distinguish myself from my car. However, when I am driving my own car, I can feel its metal skin as if it were my own. If someone's bumps into my car, I feel like saying that I have been hit. What I count as Ame@ changes in different contexts.
It now seems that the idea of a substantial split between body and mind is untenable. We cannot, after all, imagine a free floating mind, totally independent of the working of the body. Whether the mind and the body are ultimately identical, or whether they are two aspects of the same underlying substance, a functioning body seems to be necessary for the existence of a functioning mind.
Meditation 19 Wonder
Philosophy is born in wonder, but it is no wonder that many of us rarely even get to the beginning of philosophy. Why is this? Everyone knows that the universe is full of wonders. If you could see a clear, dark night's sky, the stars would still be burning in their majesty, indifferent to human fate. Their light comes from unimaginable distances. Time distorts. We look into the past. What could be more wonderful than that? Or take a beautiful sunset? There is no reason for that kind of beauty to exist, yet it does, and it is a wonder that it does. From the largest perspective, it is a wonder that the earth exists at all in the supportive semi-permanent balance in which we find it, that life exists, that consciousness exists. From the smallest perspective, there is as much wonder in the small machines of nature and art as in the whole of the universe.
This wonder is the gateway to philosophy, because it takes us out of ourselves, out of our immediate lives and into a world of thought and speculation, reason and argument, dialogue and dialectic. Out of this wonder comes the Awhat@ and the Ahow@ and the Awhy@ questions that have been the stuff of philosophy through the centuries.
Wonder is lost in the routines of life and the automatic habits that structure behavior, the expectations that guide our senses, make us look for what we expect to find. We become so focused on a cluster of interests, that the larger and smaller worlds no longer make an impression. Stop for an instant and look around. There are wonders everywhere, things whose explanations do not explain. That is when philosophy is needed, and so that is when it is born.
Meditation 20: To Know or Not to Know
We are everywhere bombarded with information and knowledge claims. Information includes everything from bus time tables and tide charts to the chemical analysis of complex substances. Knowledge claims go beyond this. We find people who claim to know all sorts of things, from the nature of the True God to the way society ought to be arranged for the good of all. Simple information is not worth worrying about. We know what it is and how to come by it. Information can be timely or out of date, accurate or imprecise, but, within limited contexts, we have agreed ways of telling true information from false. It is another thing altogether when knowledge claims conflict and there is no agreed means of telling what is true. We see these claims argued out in the marketplace of ideas and on the battlefields of the world.
Benign skepticism is an attitude of mind that looks at all the warring knowledge claims and refuses to be drawn into the battle. It refuses to take sides, but can see both sides. In the last three or four centuries, philosophical skepticism has been associated with a radical questioning of all knowledge. I am talking about a different kind of skepticism, one that accepts knowledge with a little "k". There are things that only a fool would doubt.
In ancient times, there were two sorts of skeptics, the dogmatic and the agnostic. The dogmatic skeptics held that knowledge is impossible, and that even if it were possible, it would be incommunicable. They argue against the possibility of knowledge. Their role is entirely negative. All dogmatic skeptics can do is to rebut knowledge claims and find ways to argue against the possibility of knowledge in general. To my mind, this is too dogmatic and turns skepticism in to a kind of knowledge, knowledge of the impossibility of knowledge. The agnostic skeptics, alternatively, do not claim to know that knowledge is impossible. They are open-minded about the possibility of finding what they seek. In the original sense of the Greek, skeptics are those who seek knowledge and truth. Even if they should spend their whole lives seeking, but never finding, the final answers, still, they will have escaped the morass of conflicting knowledge claims and continued to learn.
21. It’s All Relative (Not)
When the world was young and human beings dispersed in scattered tribes, the chance of contacting alien peoples was faint. Language had a sacred use in naming the gods and telling myths of origins and ends. Once a tale was told and repeated, most everyone believed it, but when human life expanded and moved beyond the tribe or clan, when agriculture began, and with it the birth of trade, the growth of cities, war and slavery, then questioning became unavoidable. Relativism arose in an ancient Greek maritime world, where sailors brought tales of far lands and peoples whose beliefs, customs and values varied. One sage, Xenophanes, remarked that if horses drew gods, they would draw them to look like horses.
One response to a variety of conflicting beliefs is to tie the truth down to what people believe. This, in brief, is the principle of relativism. Truth is made to depend on the beliefs held by a person. They may not be true for anyone else, but for each individual there is no difference between believing something and its truth. So the truth is whatever you believe to be true at the time that you believe it, for as long as you believe it, and every time you change your mind, the truth changes.
A difficult question for the principle of relativism is whether the principle, itself, is relative to a person's belief in it. If relativism makes all objective truth suspect, then it either renders itself suspect or becomes an exception to its own rule? Either way, the idea of an objective truth emerges that does resist relativism. Such truths are essentially public. Perception statements, for example, imply that the object seen can from more than one perspective. This requirement for objectivity is explicit in science. Experiments must be repeatable. If one scientist, alone, makes an observation, but no one else can make it, then that does not count for much in science. The public nature of knowledge guarantees the possibility of objective truths, if not their actual possession. Not all truths are relative, and the search for objective truth is legitimate, even if the outcome of the search is always uncertain at the start.
The problem of change struck the first philosophers more than 25 centuries ago. How are we to understand how things come into being and then pass away again? How can things change, how do they change, and why? What are the things that change? Do they remain the same, or do they change as well? How are we to understand qualitative and substantial change? And what about the people who ask about the nature of change, do they remain the same throughout their lives, or do they change as well? Can they change out of all recognition? Is there anything that remains the same while everything else is changing?
One answer to these questions is that only the principle of change itself does not change. It takes awhile to see just how deep this thought is. So many of our cherished human dreams and wishes must be put aside if we are to accept as true the thought that everything in time is subject to change, and this change brings about the obliteration of all things in it.
We would rather not think about these things. For a start, if we accept the principle of change as real, then nothing is forever, not even the fixed stars in the sky, the immemorial mountains or the timeless sea. The trouble is that our lives are so short that we do not see it. We need science to think of time scales that are unimaginably vast. If every one of your seconds was a billion years long, the big bang would be just a few seconds ago.
The earth will, in all probability, meet its end in fire when the sun expands in a few billion years. The human species may succeed in spreading throughout the universe, but if, as now seems likely, the universe itself will suffer heat death and become as cold as the grave, then however successful we are in surviving, there will be no surviving that. It is also possible that the very things that have allowed humans to colonize the earth are the things that will kill them. If the principle of change is operating, then we humans, whatever else we are, are also an evolutionary experiment, subject to change and eventual dissolution. There is simply no naturalistic way around it.
23. Golden Rules
Two golden rules have characterized Western culture. The first is Greek the second is Christian. Rule number one is AModeration in all things.@ Rule number two is ADo unto others what you would have them do unto you.@
We can see good reasons to proclaim the rule about moderation. Without moderation all sorts of bad things happen. The glutton dies young from a heart attack. The sexually promiscuous person catches some deadly disease. The excessive smoker gets lung cancer. Drug addicts overdose. Greed, which is an excess of wanting possessions or power, leads to fraud, violent crime and war. Carelessness about the long term future of our species leads to a rundown education system. We need moderation with respect to money, anger, pleasure, and in our dealings with other people.
We can see good reasons for the second rule, which is really the basis of any kind of humane morality. The second rule reminds us to put ourselves in others' shoes, to look into our own souls see whether we are treating them as would wish to be treated. If we are guided by compassion, which is not a noticeably Greek virtue, then we won't be so quick to judge others from a position of supposed superiority. If everyone lived by these two golden rules, all the self-caused problems of human life would disappear.
There is another reason why we need these golden rules, and that is because we show distinct tendencies as a species to go to excess in feeling or action and to act selfishly toward others, thinking only about how we see things, not how the other person sees them. We need to be reminded to rein back and reflect on what we are doing because we tend to act unreflectively in the first place. We need the rules precisely because they are so hard to live up to.
We live such busy lives that we tend to forget the present moment as it quietly or not so quietly slides into the past. It is impossible to grasp the present, because the moment one tries to grasp it, it vanishes. Like a neutrino whizzing through the universe at the speed of light, the present has no mass. Try to stop it and it disappears. So how can we let the present be? One answer is through meditation. Meditation stops the flow of thoughts that distract us from paying attention to the present, not as something we are trying to capture, but which we are trying to experience.
In a scientific world, the notion of meditation sounds suspicious. This is because the practice of meditation is associated with mysticism and various occult studies, as well as religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. This is a misconception of what meditation is and what it does.
Meditation is no more or less than a technique for entering the present moment and letting it be. It is like holding a soap bubble in your hand but not squeezing it so hard that it pops. The secret to meditation is to cease thinking without ceasing to be conscious of the world within and without you. Consciousness without thinking or passing judgment leaves one in the present moment, without distractions, without hopes, without fears or pains, anguish or grief. The present opens up to us in the space between thoughts, and meditative techniques are all designed to quiet the mind, to stop its chattering, its clinging to the past and anxiety over the future.
You cannot prevent your thoughts from coming. They come when they will. The practice of meditation is difficult precisely because of this. The moment you start to congratulate yourself on having attained openness in the present, you lose what you thought you had attained, because you have distanced yourself from the present by thinking about yourself. Thoughts of self and others are always coming up. Meditation may take you out of the stream of constant thinking, but it does not do so permanently, nor should it do so. Meditation is a well-deserved vacation from the worrying world of life and death, sickness and health, riches and poverty, past and future, and like any good vacation, it refreshes us for the work and struggles ahead.
25: The Most Dangerous Game
Which is more dangerous for human beings, science or religion? Science gives us the means to kill each other and ourselves, while religion historically supplies a ready reason for killing. In a blunt overview, we can contrast science and religions in the following way: Science is rational, consensual and observational. Religions are irrational containing superstitions and everything, indeed, that is a matter of faith. Science is about gaining knowledge about the universe by public means. Religions are about beliefs that are held, out of internal conviction alone, to be revealed Truth. There can be only one science, with many branches, but there are many religions, whose superstitions, alone, distinguish them. A superstition is simply any belief for which there is no empirical evidence and to which people pledge allegiance. It is a choice to believe a superstition, but knowledge is not a matter of personal choice. I do not choose the speed of light, or the dispositions of the stars, the force of gravity or the way the human body ages.
The trouble with science is that has no soul. The scientific observer is without personality, and without any interest or concern but to observe the results of carefully designed experiments and to state increasingly powerful theories. There is nothing moral about science, nothing spiritual. Its point of view is that of the third person, singular and plural, so it is always viewing things from the outside. On the plus side, science is open to evolution, because our knowledge is never closed or complete. Science is critical and asks the hard questions, but it does not prejudge the issues.
The trouble with religion is that it has too much soul. The extremely religious person is all devotion, and without any interest or concern but to open up a connection to the infinite. Unfortunately, since it is only on the basis of superstitions that religions can distinguish each other, they tend to become dogmatic. Dogmatism is the enemy of open thinking, and the refuge of intellectual laziness. An amazing thing about the human mind is its ability to think about things in some detail that cannot possibly be known by ordinary means.
Science and religion are both undeniably dangerous. So which is more dangerous? In my view, religion is the most dangerous game. Science and technology may kill us, but religion can make us zombies. Without an open mind and a questioning spirit, the human being is as good as dead already, and the next life can only ever be a matter of hearsay.
26. History Happens
Times do change. It is a commonplace, but what does it mean? The status quo can appear engraved in stone. Our lives are so short that we suffer from congenital myopia. We have the tales of parents and grandparents, but before that most everyone is dead. Many people live in places that seem to be eternal. However, many others live through the realization that just like everything else, our human institutions and societies pass away, despite the fact that some of them are quite long lasting. To live through their passing is traumatic, and impossible to grasp from the outside.
Who predicted the passing of the Soviet Union at the time it was falling apart? Suddenly, the impossible had happened. Certainty vanished. If that vast empire could fall, then anything is possible. Wars have come in the wake of this collapse to ravage peoples and countries who had had, only a short time before, a better life, an ordinary future of family and work, careers, old age. Suddenly, it is all one can do to stay alive. Everything is on hold. These changes are historical, because their effects will not be fully revealed or known for years.
Yet despite the changes and displacements of history, the ordinary takes over our lives even in extraordinary times. We can only stand so much change before we take refuge in some kind of routine. Whether this is the routine of dodging bullets on the way to the market, hoping not to encounter a suicide bomber at the wrong time, waiting to get some food at a collection center, or living as though a war will not break out. The masses of people in such places can do nothing in extraordinary times but try to find a way to live, find a routine, find normality in extremity.
For those who live outside the more troubled areas of the world, the local scene gives an increasingly illusory feeling of normality and security. The comfort and order of the advanced economies of the West are not immune to the anger and despair of those who wish they had it so good, or who wish to move to a non-Capitalist, non-globalizing world. History has just happened to everyone, but the realization will take awhile to sink in, and its effects will play themselves out for good or ill. The nervousness in the world just now is the inarticulate expression of the feeling that the future has suddenly become more unreadable. We do not know how it will turn out, and rather expect it will be for the worse.
27. What To Do
Things are looking bad. What does one do about it? How ought one to respond to the horror, mayhem and rampant injustice in the world? Should one be angry? Sad? Depressed? Full of hate? Of Love? Of Indifference? What is the right attitude to have about all this? Should the lucky ones be happy while the world goes its evil way, with men oppressing men, children and women in large areas of the earth? Just considering the injustices perpetuated against women, we see horrific spectacles of rape, machine-gunning, bodily mutilation, and now self-immolation of teenage girls in Afghanistan. . Even where women have the vote, civil rights, and opportunities to advance, there are still systematic inequalities in the treatment of women. These systemic inequalities are not gone from the countries that are most progressive in advancing the cause of women's equality, and are very striking in countries where the question of the equality of women, as we understand it, does not even arise. Similar things can be said of the oppression of men by an economic power system that exploits their labor, or the oppression of children in sweat shops and forced prostitution.
The passions at work in our world today are very negative. Prominent among them are anger, hate, the desire for revenge, and the desire to kill one's enemies. We have seen this many times in the course of human history, but after the horrors of the last century, their return in forms undreamt of then, fills us with dismay. Does mankind have no memory? Are the delights of power so overwhelming as to put all future planning out the window? Is greed so wonderful? Is money all that we should ever think about in the end? Obviously, it is not, but what then?
Should we be angry at what we see going on in the world that is unfair and oppressive to the human spirit and what it could be, if loosened from the ties that bind it to a brutal power system? Again, the answer is Ayes.@ How could one not be angry about genocide, the unequal manner in which women are treated by many men, the way profits become ends-in-themselves? One conclusion, then, is that it is right to feel angry about injustices. Now the question is what to do with this anger? Should it be allowed to turn into hate and the desire for revenge? Not if we want our miseries to end in anything other than death. It cannot be right to return a wrong for a wrong, no matter how understandable the feelings are that lead to the desire to do it. We have to be smarter than fall back on the old standby of the scapegoat and the Aenemy@ in a black and white world. It is too complicated for that, now. We must be creative and find a way to work from where we are to a world in which we would all want to live and have something to live for.
28. Complex Subjectivities
The modern age kicked off with a distinction between the human mind and body. The body exists in space and moves around from place to place and posture to posture. It is a very complex machine in which millions of parts all have to function together to make up a living body. Strong and weak atomic forces act on it, gravity acts on it, and so do all the forces of the physical universe. Inside the body, it is a caldron of electro-mechanical-chemical activity that only the physiologist knows in any detail. In sum, the body is objective and can be objectively described in scientific language.
Opposing this mindless body stands the bodiless mind, earlier called the immortal soul, which has no physical parts and thus cannot fall apart and die. This mind has no spatial dimensions, and though it seems closely tied to the senses, removing the senses one at a time does not seem to destroy the mind. Even if I became deaf and blind, I would still be able to think. The problem with mind is that it is only observable through its effects. We tend to believe that people have access to the contents of their own minds in a way no one else can. These contents, in their immediacy, cannot be objectively described in scientific language. We are left with a subjectivity that exists in simple opposition to body and all forms of objectivity.
The trouble with distinguishing mind and body in this way is that it is difficult to understand how they relate to each other. Much of modern philosophy has been the attempt to overcome the mind-body split. What has emerged is a an understanding that while subjectivity exists, and each of us is one, it does not exist simply in opposition to the body or objectivity in general. Our subjectivity is a complex layering of meanings that has its focus in our bodies and our bodily existence, our past, our family, our friends and enemies, and in our natural and political history. Although a conscious being must grasp the world in some way or another, its grasp is nonetheless modifiable. Our subjectivity can be educated by experience and thought. The simple opposition of mind and body can be overcome, and a complex whole emerge in which both mind and body are thought constituted distinctions that we make for various reasons, but which do not reflect some metaphysical split in reality.
29. Depth and Surface
Things are not always what they appear to be. This is a truism of philosophy. In fact, philosophy began with the perception that there is more to the world and the human heart than meets the eye. What meets the eye, or the ear, is just the surface of things. The inquiring mind must delve beneath the surface to get to the reality that underlies all the appearances. Plato identified a world of Forms, invisible entities that make up true reality. The world of the senses, the visible world, is but a snare and distraction. If he had his way, Plato would have us live entirely in the world of the Forms, for then we should grasp the unchanging reality of all things.
When philosophers like Plato speak of reality, they want to speak of it as immune to all the variations that plague the surface world. The Numbers of Pythagoras, Plato's Forms, Aristotle's Unmoved Mover, the Atoms of Epicurus, St. Augustine”s God and Descartes Substance all remain the same despite the changes we see around us. When we delve beneath the surface, we get to the essence of things, that without which they would not be what they are. I suppose it was meant to be comfort to us creatures of a day to realize that underneath it all, there is something solid, a metaphysical Reality.
In life, too, there are a depth and surface. Things are not what they appear. The person you trust most in the world betrays you. You find you do not know yourself very well either, discovering your own self-deception and unconscious motives. You learn that sometimes people appear friendly, but are really filled with envy. They are nice to your face but stab you in the back. Whom do you trust? Can you even trust yourself? To stay at the level of appearances will make anyone a sucker ripe for exploitation. To mistrust everyone for what a few have done to you is also a mistake.
In the political world, too, there is a depth and surface. To some who live in the advanced industrial countries, the surface of life can be quite pleasant, but this reality is nothing like that of living in war and drought torn lands where the vast majorities live in poverty, disease and ignorance due to the greed of big business and the consumptive lifestyles of the richer parts of the world. These people can, if they want, ignore the pain and suffering of the world and, if lucky, look around at an acceptable mundane life. There is no one starving on the streets where they live, not much shooting or stabbing, and quiet personal pleasures to anticipate. The depth is the horror, and the surface is the social scene that unfolds before their daily eyes. Others lives in the horrors, and for them this reality is the surface. After awhile in this state, everyone forgets how people can live together in relative peace and harmony.
It is good to realize that we cannot take our experiences at face value. We cannot always trust the ideas we derive from appearances. Science is a good example of how strange the universe really is, having little to do with how it appears to us, especially on a cosmic or micro scale. We cannot always trust others or detect a truly good will. We should not confuse a lucky social surface with the deep injustice of the world. On the other hand, depth is not all there really is. Appearances have their own reality for living human beings, and no amount of explaining them away by pointing to another Reality will satisfy us. It is a mistake to stop with appearances and look no further, but it is an equal mistake to dwell in Reality in such a way that the appearances disappear. The metaphysician has to eat. Skeptics of the human heart must form some relations to others. Seeing the reality of injustice in the world, we must not forget to be just to those with whom we share a superficial social surface. The surface, after all, is the surface of the depth, and the depth is the depth of the surface. Remember the connection.
30. Do We Reap What We Sow?
Do we reap what we sow? The short answer to this question is Ayes,@ unless external factors interfere. The metaphor of sowing and reaping brings this out. A farmer plants seeds in fertile soil, it rains the right amount, the weather is clement, and the earth produces its bounty at harvest time. In a predictable way, the anticipated crop comes in as the normal result of physics, biology and genetics. Here the external factors are weather and soil conditions. In the case of human behavior, the student who does the course work generally will reap good grades, and the athlete who trains to run the marathon will be most likely to stay the course. The drinker and smoker sow alcohol and smoke in their bodies and reap liver and lung problems. Habits have long term effects that cannot be wished away. What are all the pleasures of drinking or smoking to the person who is dying as a direct result of indulging in them?
So what about external factors? Sometimes the rains do not come and the crops fail. The seeds are sown, but nothing is reaped. There is no harvest for the farmer. The student gets sick on exam day. The marathon runner sprains an ankle and is unable to compete. Smokers and drinkers live to a ripe old age and die in their sleep of causes unrelated to their vices, due to a peculiarly robust physical constitution. Worse yet, frauds and con-artists have successful careers in crime and never get caught. Murderers disappear and are never brought to justice. The external factors that prevent these people from reaping what they sow are things like luck; the naivety and gullibility of people, and the ineptitude or corruption of the police.
The last case points up the reason that people have needed to believe that there is God or Divine Providence that arranges things for the best. The con-artists and murderers who escape justice in this world receive it in another. The question whether we reap what we sow takes on a sharper focus here. The answer we want is Ayes.@ We want to believe that if we sow goodness in the world, than we will reap goodness. We want to believe that if we sow evil, then evil will come to us.
We know this is not always true. There is enough uncertainty and chance in life to make us recognize that we do not always reap what we sow. There are always exceptions to the rules, though the rules show us what happens in normal cases. Normally, all things considered, we do reap what we sow. Our plans will mature. Our lifestyles will catch up with us. If we live a healthy life, eat and drink in moderation while exercising our bodies and minds, we are more likely to live a longer and happier life. If we are friendly and helpful to other people, tell the truth and keep our promises, we are likely to find that most people will respond in kind. If we are nasty and hateful, we will be shunned.
More deeply, in a moral sense, we do always reap what we sow, because there are no external factors that can interfere with the outcome. The Title of Lao Tzu's book tells it all, AActions and their Retributions.@ The Greeks had the idea, too, with the thought that the character of a person is destiny, conceived as a collection of habits. In Buddhism, it is the idea of AKarma.@ What we can control over is our own actions and attitudes, for these are like seeds planted in the world, and they will bear fruit, whether bitter or sweet. Frauds, con-artists and murderers do not escape the consequences of their way of life, even though they may be missed by the law or escape the envy of their own kind. In this internal sense, we do always reap what we sow, and it is here that we bear the most responsibility.
31. The Cave
Imagine, like Plato, that most people live in a cave without knowing it. They go about their lives oblivious of the limitations of cave life. The air is smoky. The light is no good. It flickers. Images appear and disappear. Time moves on, and the familiar reality of the cave is taken to be the only reality that exists. The surfaces of things advertise themselves brightly, and are the first seen. We cave dwellers, like children, are habituated to a certain way of life based on all kinds of illusions and fantasies that are taken to be true. We think we see palaces and boulevards, but they are only projections on the walls.
What, now, if something happens to disrupt the unthinking flow of busy life? What if tragedy strikes your family? What if the doctor says that you have only six months to live? What if the stock market crashes? What if a new disease starts to get out of control? What if war breaks out? The lights start to come on. The cave is illuminated, and the residents see that they exist in an empty underground chamber.
In the corner there is a way out, but it is scary to leave the comfort of home as long as the illusion of safety is maintained. Unless pushed, no one wants to leave the normal course of life. It seems that human beings are able to handle only small doses of reality. Let us hope the cave doesn't collapse.
32. Extreme Old Age
The end of a long life is not a pleasant prospect. We tend not to think about it. Should old age overtake us, what we find, as Eliot tells us, is Athe cold friction of expiring sense.@ Our physical capabilities crumble, and tasks that we could have done easily not so many years ago are now impossible to do. With extreme old age come pain and debilitation and the knowledge that one will never Aget well@ again. This may be the key difference between being merely old and extremely old. The body's powers of recuperation are strong, and a state of terminal decline may be late in coming.
Some people are already old at 60 and extremely old at 80. Others add ten years and only get to extreme old age in their 90's or 100's. We can think of life as a series of books. Infancy and extreme old are the bookends of life, and each is strangely outside the life that we live between them. When we are very young or very old, our movements are monitored and circumscribed. We are cared for, because we cannot look after ourselves due to lack of strength or agility. However, while a world of plans opens up for the young, the world contracts for the very old, and there is no more time for plans. Things that matter to the very young cease to matter to the elderly. Movement decreases. Reality becomes more sedentary. The future is tonight and tomorrow. Most people seem to strive to live indefinitely even though they know they are mortal. The world goes on its way regardless, and it is easy, at the end, to feel like a fifth wheel, surplus to requirements.
The mind starts to go in old age. Luckily, it may go slowly, and in fact may retain much of its character to the end. Not counting diseases that affect the brain, the very old can still think and be aware of their current state, future prospects, and of the world falling away. This may be a source of pain or relief. The very old are not really needed for anything, haven't much to do and are not expected to do much. It would be easy to feel like a fifth wheel living out the final bookend of life. A long life prepares an extreme old age. If one gets there rightly prepared, perhaps it, too, has a contribution to make to a life well lived.
Extreme old age is a rehearsal for death proper. Nothing matters to the dead, and less and less matters to the very old. My very old aunt, before she died, gave up playing cards with friends with whom she had played for years. She wanted to get rid of the silverware, and settle all her accounts. By snipping away the ties that bind us to the earth, she was getting ready to sever all connections with it. Some people die quietly as if they were putting down a burden, others fight to the end. At other times, perhaps, a benign nature makes death easy for the very old to accept, since life's beguilements are no more, and we cease to care for the things we would have missed at earlier times of our lives.
33. The Indifference of Nature
Stand back and look at the universe as a whole. What do you see? On the best scientific hypothesis now available, the universe is made up of matter and energy, and is, on the micro level, quite chaotic. Chance rules. There is no intention behind the universe, no mind that has willed things for the best. The laws of nature are contingent upon the universe being what it is, and it might, metaphysically speaking, have been quite different. In vain do we look for Providence in the workings of nature. Earthquakes, mud slides, microbes, carnivores, floods and accidents make things worse for human beings pure and simple. They deliver undeniable blows to our plans, families and lives. What good is there in these things? None, to my reckoning.
Equally, we might ask what evil there is in these things. The natural disasters that strike us down are not always our responsibility. The tree that falls on a pedestrian intends no harm. It simply obeys the law of gravity. The SARS virus is just trying to make a living and will spread where it can for its own survival. The tornado gives no thought to the destruction it causes, for it is we who see destruction in the clouds.
In geological time, there has been a parade of species marching through the pages of Natural History. They come into being and go out of being with alarming rapidity, though some life forms find a shape so stable that they remain essentially unchanged for millions of year. The Trilobites are a good example, but they, too, eventually went the way of the Giant Sloth, whose term on earth was much shorter. Nature does not care about itself, needs to take no care for itself, and is supremely indifferent to all that happens within it.
Nature wishes us no harm, nor any benefit, either. The vaunted Adominant species on earth@ is just another species in the parade, and will have its run. Only time tells whether human beings, as an animal species, continues as long as the Trilobites did, or the Giant Sloth. As long as we are able, we will strive to endure, to exist, and to propagate our species. I am sure we will go down fighting. Yet it is our fight, and we fight it for ourselves and our species. Nature, being indifferent to us, will not deign to fight. It is no good complaining about this. There simply are no hidden silver linings in disasters. We, too, are part of nature and will run the course, just as we shall all continue to live until our bodies give out on us. This is not good, not bad, but simply the way it is for mortals, no matter how long their lives may be. Our job is to make things better for ourselves and for others while we live. Nature will take care of the rest, without a care of its own.
34. Terrible Clarity
Is it wonderful to be clear about things, to know what's right and what's wrong, what's true or false? You never have to think again, when everything is clear. You have a position to maintain, a cause to promote, something to die for. Meaning is not a problem. Ambiguities, irony, obscurity, clouds of unknowing do not obstruct the way. You know where you stand, and the right opinions to hold. It's living in the sunlight, a pleasure and a comfort, or might absolute clarity be an illusion?
It is good to be clear about things, including clarity itself. We need to be able to analyze complex ideas, stay consistent in our thinking, define our terms and say what we mean. But like a drug, clarity has unwanted side effects. Perhaps the worst is using moral clarity as an excuse for the persecution of others. If you are absolutely clear, for example, that other races are born to be ruled by one's own, that either women or men are superior to the opposite sex, that one political party is completely right and the others completely wrong, or that only one religion is the true religion, then clarity can produce terrible effects.
The clarity of revenge is particularly terrible. In situations of high moral complexity, clarity simplifies our grasp of the world and our own nature. Everything is clear because the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth is clear. You can forget about everything else in a single-minded hatred against an Aenemy,@ anyone will do. It is a bit like being in a war where it is either you or the other that survives. The quarrel does not matter, as long as there is one. When both sides are clear about the justice or necessity of their cause, we have slaughter in the name of high ideals.
The question in my mind is how to break the cycle of hatred and violence, how to overcome the clarity that insists on oversimplifying the complexities of the problems confronting us, in order to avoid the anxiety of living in a complex world. The temptation is to get mad, not sad. It is in vain. There is no avoiding the anxiety of living as a mammal does. The problem with clarity is that it masks the true complexity of the problem, and provides a spurious sense of rightness and superiority over others. I have no answers. The road of hatred, violence and war is so clear, while the road of peace is muddled and confused. Perhaps suffering itself leads to this terrible clarity.
35. The Danger of Purity
Nothing is pure or impure in Nature. Human beings imagine that some things and practices are pure and others are impure. It is a distinction made by humans out of their own needs and desires. Somehow, the distinction worked its way into the heart of human life, where it sits to this day as part of a magical view of the world.
Where Apure@ and Aimpure@ find a literal meaning, it is in measurements of materials in our environment. For example, we can talk about impurities in the water, and we mean the chemicals we do not like to see in the water. In reality, water always has impurities. Some are tolerable, others, not. We measure the differences in parts per million or billion. We can drink pure water, bathe or swim in it. If it is too acidic, alkali, or contains too many viruses and bacteria, we cannot.
All this makes sense. We can talk about levels of purity in the air, and even in the soil. Purity is good, and impurity is bad; that is, we judge one to be good for us and the other bad. In themselves, air and water and soil are always mixtures, and therefore only relatively pure or impure.
Talk about the pure and impure becomes dangerous when the words start taking on a metaphorical or religious meaning. There is no measure here, and so anything goes. We hear about inner purity, purity of the soul, moral purity, the purity of sexual abstinence. Plato tells us to prepare for a life after death by running as far away from bodily desires as we can. In this way, he thinks, the soul will be purified of earthly desire and stand face to face with the eternal Forms. The body and bodily desires are corrupt and must be controlled by the mind and reason.
Ritual cleansing, acts of expatiation and penance, asceticism and spiritual exercises all work with a metaphorical notion of purity. The acts are supposed to bring about an inner transformation, but a fixation with purity leads to excess. One becomes a judge of the pure and the impure. An extreme example is that of the Untouchables in India. They are considered impure by higher castes, like the Brahmins. The belief that we can distinguish the pure from the impure, and denigrate what we call Aimpure@ is a great cause of strife in this world. In fact, everything is impure, which is only to say that it contains a mixture of many things. The distinction plays a magical role when moved from its literal context, and we forget that it is a metaphorical or magical idea of purity that is invoked. Believers take the distinction between the pure and the impure to be a real distinction in things. Their wills and emotions become entangled in the distinction and their reactions to the thought of purity or impurity becomes inflamed. The obsession with purity is a snare and delusion, and the sooner we come to recognize magical thinking for what it is, the better.
36. Chaos or Creation?
AWhy is there something rather than nothing?@ This is one of the oldest and deepest of philosophical questions. It is philosophical because the question itself is hard to understand. Regardless of this, it continues to put itself forward, because we can conceive that there might have been nothing rather than something. After all, if there were no being, it would take a lot less effort all around. Think of all the forces that surround us, the tensions and processes that make up the evolutions of the universe. Think of all the effort, pain and suffering that is involved in staying alive, both as an individual and as a species living on this planet. There is no necessity about this, and no contradiction in the thought of bare self-sufficient nonexistence. For this reason, perhaps, we feel the need to know why there is something rather than nothing.
Answers have varied. Some have held that there must be something, a Being that created the universe out of nothing. First there was nothing, and then there was something, but before both is a Being that exists of its own necessity and then takes on the burden of creation. This Being is the Creator God of the three monotheistic religions.
On the face of it, this is difficult to conceive, and it goes against the wisdom of the ancient world that Anothing comes from nothing.@ How could something come from nothing? It is a total revelation that the whole world came into being from nothing at all, nothing but the will of an all powerful, but inscrutable God.
From Plato we have a different myth. It stars a Great Daimon, or spirit, which, though all knowing and good, is not all powerful. It creates the universe not out of nothing, but out of a previously existing matter. The Daimon draws order out of chaos and AOld Night.@ The act of creation forges links between the Eternal Forms and finite, changeable things, thus giving them intelligible essences.
The Daimon perceives perfection in the Forms, but matter refuses to be shaped to that perfection. Things go awry, and will continue to go awry, because chaos and unpredictability remain embedded in things, along with ineluctable contingency and chance.
There is a third alternative. In the beginning and always is chaos, but chaos, or what is the same thing, nothingness, cannot remain totally chaotic. Chaos of itself produces the order that we see about us in ever changing shapes. We exist in the order that chaos randomly produces. However, our lives are so short, and the life of our species is so short that we can never live long enough to see the laws of nature change. Chaos provides the perfect conception of a universe in evolution. Nature is contingent and probabilistic, but the laws of nature remain just constant enough for us to get our bearings in the universe. Chaos produces order because order is just a slow motion shot of chaos in action. The answer to our question is simply that it is impossible, after all, for there to be nothing rather than something.
37. Skin and Body
Think what it means to have a skin. We wear our skins as divers wear their wet suits. It separates us from the surrounding world, gives us a sense of the Ain here@ and the Aout there.@ It means that we can be alone, and in fact that we are always, in a sense, alone. I am not talking just about being alone in a crowd, but an ontological separation. It means that we can watch people suffer and die within their skins, but be unable to go inside with them. It means we have to die alone, even if others are in the room with us. We can hold someone's hand, but that is skin upon skin, one outside touching another. It is as if, when we meet, we are unable to take off our gloves. A shield of skin gives us a place to hide, but also a barrier between ourselves and others.
Yet this does not seem to be the end of the story, for otherwise our lives would be dreary indeed. There are forces in the body that extend out beyond it, perhaps what is meant by a person's aura, perhaps a complex field of electro-magnetism. When two human bodies approach closely, these fields intermingle and together produce a single field whose borders do not stop at the skin. With some individuals it feels good to be close enough to feel the change of field, with others, not.
How we live in our skins and bodies is affected by culture, habit and language. Each of us walks around in a body space, and we tend not to think that the other's space begins right up against our own skins, though in some cultures touching, or a certain kind of touching, is more a part of the rituals of social intercourse than in others. Some parts of our skins are more private and touchy than others. A shake of the hand, palm against palm, is acceptable, but touching someone's genitals in friendly greeting would likely be taken amiss. Indeed, unless the toucher is from another planet, we would probably think it insulting or suggestive.
Formality and intimacy are shown in how the body energy fields and skin are used and lived. We are projections of meaning, and our bodies and skins are signs and intentions. Most persons do not have to think about this very much, unless they find themselves in a land where different mores govern the uses of skin and body. We read the signs effortlessly at home and are sometimes embarrassed abroad. Luckily, we do not have to rely on body language alone, but have ways to project our thoughts and feelings in words that cross the space from skin to skin.
There is a situation in which the ontological alienation of the individual is overcome, and that is in the embrace, the caress, and the touching of head to head. Now inside and outside are confused, and duality of self and other is, for a moment, transcended. This is one of the most blessed of human conditions, and is not identical with having sex, though it does not exclude it. One feels no longer alone, and this feeling, though insubstantial and fleeting, is the merging two beings into one. Physical contact with another person is one of the great comforts of life, but also one of the most regulated. Perhaps is must be this way, since our hectic and regimented lives mainly require us to live in our skins and keep our hands and bodies to ourselves.
38 The Two Forms of Love
Love has two forms. One is accepting, and the other a striving sort of love. The first is more unconditional, while the second has its conditions and demands. The first face of love shows us a steady attachment and a wish for the benefit and happiness of the other, not for the sake of the lover, but for the sake of the beloved. The lover wishes that the beloved's desires are fulfilled, and counts the beloved's desiring them as a prima facie reason to wish those things for that person. If I love you in this way, then your desire to go to Tibet, learn Sanskrit, volunteer time at a soup kitchen, or what have you, is also a reason for me to wish for these things for you, too, whether I should want to do any of them or not. It is not being jealous of the other, or the other's friends, interests or passions, even if they take the person we love away from us, temporarily or permanently, the way parents love their children who leave and go out into the world.
Maternal, paternal or familial love gives us our first examples of unconditional love. It is unconditional because there is nothing the beloved has to do obtain it or keep it. It is enough that the person exists and is loved for him or herself. The love of parents for their children is present from the beginning, because the other is part of you or your family. Even the mothers of mass murderer sons may continue to love them, without condoning what they did. This is possible for a truly unconditional love.
Our second sets of examples come from deep friendships. One of the wonderful things about having true friends is that they no longer judge you on appearances. They knew you when your faults were exposed, and they did not abandon you. You are loved for yourself and not what you can do for them. You can say what you like, behave as you like, in the knowledge that if you start to go wrong, your friends will give you the criticism that, perhaps, no one else will.
The ideal of unconditional love describes a mutual and positively sustaining relationship. It is good to think of the wishes of the beloved as one's own, and not to make too many demands, or lay down too many rules, as conditions that must be met for continued affection to be assured. However, it may be easier with friends than with lovers to move toward unconditional love, since so much of one's ego, self-esteem, emotional and physical needs are bound up in a romantic and sexual love relationship. It is perhaps too much to ask that a romantic relationship should terminate in a purely unconditional love.
Conditional or demanding love is intense and changeable and seems to involve an aura of exclusivity. The striving love makes demands on the other to be an acceptable partner in love, and to become one with the beloved in ever more inclusive ways. There are dangers here. The self is vulnerable to the other, needs and wants the other, to the point of possessiveness and jealously. This sort of love dies more easily than unconditional love. For example, it is very hard to grant a beloved perfect sexual freedom and continue to have the same intense relationship. Infidelity hurts romantic relationships, because the partners had agreed to limit their sexual freedom to each other. A relationship may survive such shocks, but infidelity shows a basic disrespect for the relationship and weakens the bonds of the two. Once broken, the bonds of love are hard to repair.
39: Local and Global
Each individual lives at a historically precise intersection of local settings and global conditions. In the past, this intersection was less consciously global. Great distances and slow communication ensured this. Lately, new systems of communication throw us into a truly global world. The world appears as a whole from one ideological perspective or another. However, it is possible to multiply perspectives and come at the world from different angles. We are now in a position to see the interrelations that are making us think globally.
What are truly global concerns? Obvious ones are natural disasters, famine, disease, war, pollution, social injustice, racism, sexism, animal rights, biodiversity, genetic engineering, weapons of mass destruction, defoliation, global warming, the spread of democracy, human rights, and the increasing difference between rich and poor. To take one example, deforestation may not seem to matter to a desert country, but the extent that such denuding changes rain and weather patterns, it could make a great deal of difference in the long run. All these concerns are Along term.@
What are local concerns? There is no telling what these may be in the absence of a social setting. The local concerns of people displaced by an earthquake in the winter, for example, would be tents, blankets, food, warmth and medical assistance, international cooperation, and volunteers to look for survivors. In relatively peaceful towns, local needs might come down to filling potholes, or finding a playing field for the children to use. Of course, towns and cities are also affected by global conditions, and this will affect local needs. Other local concerns transcend particular localities but are not truly global, like the question of gay marriage, female priests, gay bishops, whether marijuana or prostitution ought to be legalized.
How will the individual react to this intersection? It depends upon the individual's character, habits of action, thought and emotion, attitudes and orientation in a world of values, moral aesthetic or social. Some will feel the global conditions more acutely than others. Some will ignore, as far as possible, the global conditions as long term and thus not applicable to them, though their descendants may feel the effects. Others will be forced to put them together, as when the earthquake does strike and you are suddenly in the street with nothing. In morality, we have obligations to those who are physically close to us as well as those who live half way across the world. Both the local and the global concerns have their pull. The important thing is to see that there is a choice where one's commitments lie, in the local, the global, or, with difficulty, in both.
40: The View from Middle Age
It is common to think that there are stages on life's way. Thinkers have different ideas about what and how many these stages are, but they all agree that there are stages and that, if we live long enough, we go through all of them. A life that is cut off in middle age is not completed by that death but simply terminated. This is why we feel worse when the young die than when the old do. We expect people to start dying after 70, but before that we are likely to think that something has been wasted. Aristotle speaks of happiness as that which belongs to a long and fulfilled life. We cannot speak of the young as happy in the full sense, for we do not know what misfortunes await them.
In youth there is a great abundance of vitality and sheer animal spirits. Hormones are running strongly, and the world is an exciting and scary place to be. The future looks endless, though one is told that death awaits us all. Yet mortality is not very real to the young, even when they lose loved ones along the way. There is much to do, plans to be made, an education to achieve, a living to earn, and preparing for retirement. Life that was so open begins to close with the choices and commitments we make. On top of this, life happens to us. We get hurt, injured, worn down by time and repetition. Slowly, ever so slowly it seems at first, our energy decreases, the blood does not run as hotly. We enter middle age.
This is not to say that we should all plan to die before we turn thirty. With any luck, one does not plunge into decrepitude on becoming a certain age. The vitality is still there, but now it is coupled with experience and a sense of the patterns of time and the world. One is no longer so naive, so trusting, so ignorant of cause and effect as one once was. This is the trade off, what Plato calls Athe turning of the soul,@ where instead of looking forward toward a limitless future, we point backward to a past that now has a meaning it could never have had at the time. If one is ever to get one's life together with a clear eye and a sense of humor, it is now, in middle age, when the perspective from the middle puts the extremes of birth and death in old age together in a single view.
By middle age, the seeds planted when young have come to fruition, for good or ill. We do come to a harvest in the normal course of events. For the most part, once you get to 50 or so, what will be, will have been. Yes, there are still goals to achieve, perhaps, a future for which to prepare, a will to write, and so on, but the end is in sight now, and the time left within which to act effectively is strictly limited, despite not generally knowing the exact timing of our death, except in suicide or execution. It is time, therefore, in middle age to make every day count. Enjoy what you have accomplished if you can, and do not be too frustrated that not all you dreams and plans have come true, for that disappointment, like death itself, is common to us all.
41: On Suffering
What is suffering? Everyone has an idea, in the first instance from their own case. Individual humans suffer a multitude of afflictions. Some come randomly and we count such suffering a matter of bad luck. I break my arm in an earthquake, crack my tooth on a stone, stub my toe, or catch a cold. All manners of things like this just happen to people with statistical regularity. Other suffering is more ambiguously the result of an uncaring fate. I smoke for forty years and get lung cancer or emphysema. Now I suffer. The same goes for drinking too much and getting liver damage, or taking in other statistically relevant carcinogens.
Beyond the suffering of disease and physical pain, there is the suffering of the heart and self-esteem, which can be every bit as painful and Areal@ as the pain of a toothache. To love and lose is to suffer, as is the discovery of a friend's betrayal, the loss of medical coverage and one's pension, or suffering injustice at the hands of others. The pain of conscience is never far away, a reminder of things done or left undone to one's own and others' detriment, moral or spiritual. So, in one's own case, we find physical, emotional and moral categories of suffering. They all involve the more or less passive experience of pain that is common to all suffering. I experience the pain, and I cannot help feeling it, even if I do not want to suffer. If I do want to suffer, perhaps as self-inflicted punishment for crimes committed, still the experience of suffering is passive. It happens to me. If I flog myself, the pain I endure, though self-caused, is, nevertheless, experienced passively.
So by the experience of physical, emotional or moral suffering, we get the idea of what it is. How, then, ought we to relate to the suffering of others? The temptation, in normal cases, is to forget about suffering if one is not suffering oneself. We want to be happy, if we can, and dwelling on the suffering of others brings us down, makes us angry, disgusted, sad, despairing, and, ultimately, perhaps, suicidal. Everywhere in the world, there is suffering beyond belief. Even in countries not facing social upheavals at the moment, suffering is rampant. Some of it is a matter of bad luck in an indifferent natural universe. Some is self-caused, but the bulk is caused by the actions of human beings themselves. In ancient Athens, the slaves who were sent to work the silver mines suffered and died in that work, and they knew when they walked in that they would be released only when they were dead. This is an unbearable thought, and yet there were men who forced those slaves to work and die for their masters. Obviously, the masters, not feeling the suffering of the slaves themselves, were not concerned about it.
There has to be a mean between obsessing about the suffering all around us, exploring and finding in history and current events the evils that men, for the most part, inflict on other men and women, and ignoring all suffering besides one's own and those of one's family and immediate friends. We have to accept suffering that happens to us through living and being able to feel pain, but we do not have to accept the suffering that we cause to ourselves and even less that which is caused by one group of men to others of their own species. The outrage that we ought to feel is what can galvanize us to act to reduce suffering where this is humanly possible. On the other hand, it is wrong to dwell too much on suffering, and the injustice of the suffering created by our fellows against the few or against the many. To dwell too much on these things can turn righteous anger into a blinding hate that adds to the injustice our anger was roused to eliminate.
42. Should Same Sex Marriages be prohibited?
It is strange that such a simple word as Amarriage@ turns out to be ideological dynamite. At least in the Western world, everyone knew, or thought they knew, what marriage is, an institution ordained by the Almighty that joins a man and a woman in holy wedlock. This >sacred' meaning of marriage belongs to a broadly Christian view. If marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman, then the idea of a same sex marriage makes no sense at all. Why then should it be prohibited? It is impossible in the sacred sense, so why worry whether others wish to use the word Amarriage@ in a wider sense, no longer sacred, in which a marriage is now a relationship of two human beings, and we no longer specify the gender of the partners.
Of course, in some sacred settings, there will be a prohibition on same sex marriage, and there is nothing wrong with that as long as everyone's participation is voluntary. These people simply will not use the word Amarriage@ to describe a close, long-lived loving relation between human beings of the same sex. This is a free choice, but it is not one that should seek to prevent others from saying that they are married, even if such a union does not find a sacred seal.
The civil society created by the separation of church and state in the United States Constitution guarantees that each law abiding citizen is free to live and worship as she or he pleases. If you are not hurting anyone in thinking, believing or acting as you do, then no one has a right to make you conform to their standards of right and wrong, propriety or impropriety, morality or immorality. I may find someone's life empty of meaning, superficial, and boring, but is not my business to give it meaning, bring depth to the soul, or somehow make the person more interesting. Disapproving of someone's lifestyle is one thing, prohibiting it is another.
The uproar over same sex marriage rests on confusion about the sacred and the secular. A useful first step is to consider the nature of a Acivil union.@ Marriage, after all, is more than a sacred bond; it is also recognition of a certain civil status that is given to married couples. What is it that human beings want in a marriage? What rights and privileges are given to married couples that are not given unmarried individuals? What do same sex couples want that already belong to heterosexual couples, but not to them? Are there any good reasons for making a distinction between the sexes here? Why should we stop same sex couples from entering into the same legal arrangements as husbands and wives? There are no compelling secular reasons to prohibit same sex marriages, nor to us religious sanctions to prohibit them. Sealing marriage with a sacred wedding is optional and a matter of personal faith. It should not be made the vehicle of public policy.
What is the significance of evolution? Why does it bring fear and apprehension to so many people? Does it lead to nihilism? I see it as a bomb going off very slowly. The end is nothing for every species of life, and for life itself, according to the best available cosmology. It is not only life forms that evolve, but the universe itself. This evolution follows the law of entropy in which things move from a more to a less organized state, concluding in a nearly perfect randomness. The universe will eventually slow down until the temperature hovers just slightly above absolute zero. There will be not much in the way of movement. For a brief period, life thumbs it nose at entropy and says, AI am going to stay organized for as long as I can,” knowing that this will not be forever, when it becomes self-conscious. Each life form is an experiment in living, one of the possible combinations and permutations of genetic material, or its equivalent. Every species is a success in its own day, adapted for survival in a favorable environment that may cease to be favorable at any moment. When circumstances change, species die out that are unable to adapt, while others take their place, at least for a long time. However, there are physical conditions that will not tolerate life of any kind, like those in the centers and surfaces of stars. Our middle-aged sun will one day become an expanding ball of incandescent gas. When it reaches the earth, the end of the planet will arrive and bring the end for any forms of life that managed to endure so long, on or below its surface.
The true horror of evolution and the eventual extinction of life is the realization that humans are just another animal species. We, too, are an experiment in living. We come from a long line of animals, going back to the beginning of life on earth. Somehow, along the line, the brains of hominids changed in such a way as to support a number of novel abilities not found before to such a degree in the rest of the animal kingdom. It supported linguistic communication, making and using tools, coordinated hunting, close observation of nature, and the transmission of culture. These emergent qualities have allowed humans to colonize the planet and use it for human purposes. We no longer simply adapt to the natural world but change it. Whether this is ultimately for good or ill, we do not know, but somewhere we are anxious that it will be for ill. The dinosaurs died out because giant asteroids hit the earth, and the resulting debris and pollution broke the food chain. Many animals starved to death that ate the animals that ate the plants that no longer grew. There was no way around it. Humans look ahead, but are they looking far enough? Do the traits that have made human beings the dominant large animal species lend themselves to survival in the future? Do the powers of thought give humans an edge in survival? The saber tooth tiger had great fangs to tear the flesh of large herbivores. When the herbivores died out at the hands of human hunters, the fangs just got in the way of getting a square meal. They were great for tearing into a mammoth but useless for hunting mice. Let us hope that the human mind is more flexible than the mental equivalent of the tiger's fangs.
44: Madness and Reason
Obsession and compulsion are compatible with reason. Sadly, from its modern birth, the partisans of the cause of reason have played down the thought that reason might have a dark side. As in all political or cultural causes, an element of distortion can start the engine of change. The cost of seeing deeply in one direction is to ignore, through lack of time, if nothing else, anything that is not directly in the spotlight. The partisans of reason thought education and enlightenment would lead to general progress and the overall good of the peoples of the world. The report card for the Cause of Reason in the last three hundred years is decidedly mixed.
On the one hand, obvious goods have flowed to many people from the technological make over of the world. The rich countries are richer far than the dreams of King Midas. The Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt experienced more pain and discomfort from treatable illnesses than millions do today. Slaves are not necessary for commodious living, as Aristotle once thought. Food, again in the rich countries, is plentiful. Diet and medicine keep people alive much longer than ever before. Education has become universal in some lands, and does indeed create the conditions for the existence of a civil society and its institutions. The notion of equality before the law comes from the idea of Reason, transposing the old religious idea of equality before God.
Suspicion of reason and its program of enlightenment arose early. People of more romantic temperament saw the strictures of Reason as dry and unyielding. Blake drew a picture of the scientist, Newton, as he hunches over a geometric diagram with a compass in his hand. Full of schemes and calculations, he renounces his humanity. An abstraction rules his mind, and his science was indifferent to the suffering of human beings. Those Ainfernal mills@ of early industrialization saw the marks of Aprogress@ stamped onto the backs of the workers. Is this reason?
Reason rides rough shod over the differences between things. It absorbs differences into an overall identity to which everything must, perforce, conform. Hegel, who still believed in reason, saw the abstraction of freedom, equality and cooperative coexistence leading to the terror of the French revolution. Social practices must mediate between daily life and the great ideals of the revolution, or they will remain abstract and lead to one-sidedness and violence.
Of course, commitment to reason and the rational life does not, by itself, make a person mad. It is mad, however, to be committed to a program of reason to the exclusion of all else, including unreason. The rational and the non-rational are bound together in the human condition, and they can easily slide into their opposites. Reason loses its grip on reality when it mistakes a generalization for the absolute truth, and commits itself to the suppression of differences, rather than working for their mutually beneficial coordination.
45. It's Still the Ancient World
One of the great debates of 17th Century Europe was about whether the virtues of the modern world surpassed those of the ancient. Modernity is supposed to have emerged in the course of the Italian Renaissance, the Copernican revolution, the rise of mathematical science and the coming of the Enlightenment. It promised to overthrow superstitions, make progress in the arts and sciences, and to lead to a general >humanization' of man through reason, education, good sense and moderation.
There is so much in the ancient world to look down on from the height of the Enlightenment. The ancients believed in omens and supernatural signs. The gods were out of sight on high mountains or in the clouds. Living spirits blew through the world as winds, from mighty Boreas to the tiniest caressing zephyr. Everything was ensouled. Magic worked. The ancient humans tried to appease the whimsical gods and supernatural powers by sacrificing to them, worshiping them, engaging in ritual behavior around their images, and in countless other ways. In return, the gods would see to the harvest, the health of the flocks, the return of the ships, and cure diseases where no human knowledge or skill could heal the afflicted. The ancients knew that we were at the mercy of the elements and forces that far outstrip our human powers and common sense understandings.
By contrast, our contemporary world has unlocked the secrets of the universe in a way previously unknown. We need no longer appeal to supernatural powers in order to explain natural events. If things go wrong, and the hurricanes come, well, we will know why, and it will not be because Poseidon is angry with us for not sacrificing to him since the time of the ancient Greeks. In a world of light and progress, only time stands in the way of perfection here on earth, according to the hopes of 17th Century Europe.
Unfortunately, the debate about the relative merits of the ancients and the moderns was misconceived because we have never left the ancient world. What we have now is the ancient world with atom bombs and other weapons of mass destruction. Ancient religions survive, holding on to revealed truths that are anything but universal. Many people still believe in superstitions, prophecies, omens, jinxes, evil eyes and the rest. Superstitions never went away, but were swept under the carpet. They were railed against, but never eliminated. Even Chairman Mao, with his great authoritarian powers, could not eradicate the tendency of the Chinese peasants to put faith in superstitions and magic.
The status quo for the ancient world was war and conquests, victory, defeat, surrender and slavery. The so-called modern world, with all its technological sophistication, simply continues the ancient tradition of warfare, inventing ever more ingenious weapons of destruction and killing. Our religions, though not polytheistic for the most part, continue to be sources of violence and war, despite preaching peace. Monotheism is just as much based on beliefs in a supernatural realm as polytheism, and just as far outside the scope of reason and empirical evidence.
The bleeding spectacle of the world, man's inhumanity to man and even more to women, the clash of ideologies, religious and secular, are just ancients days continued into our present. They began a few thousand years ago with the first civilizations and have continued ever since. We now stretch in a continuous and bloody line back to the beginning of human civilization on this earth. The general enlightenment of the peoples of the world has not yet arrived, and our vaunted Amodernity@ itself is nothing but another phase of the ancient world.
46 The End of the World
The thought of the ALast Days@ is in the air. Millenarian expectations fill the airways. Why now? What role does the end of the world play in our collective psychic lives? What is it about the present configuration of events that prefigures a release of millenarian energies? It is a strange phenomenon from the perspective of a broadly naturalistic philosopher such as me. For me, the universe is wonderful and mysterious, but it is understandable, so far as it is, in a worldly way through science and practical experience. So what could these last days be for me? No one knows for sure the fate of the universe, but a good guess is that it will end either in fire or in ice. There will not be anyone around to witness this Aend.@ If humans do not manage to escape this earth and travel to other planets, then the expansion of the sun in its death throes will kill us also. However, not to worry, it is a long way off, billions of years, perhaps, and certainly more than we can ever imagine. The end of the species, Homo-sapiens, will not be the end of the world.
So why worry about the end of the world just now? I submit that it is a way to put off thinking about tomorrow in a realistic way. This is the point at which politics and religious prophecies begin to mix. For example, if you really think the world is going to end soon, and take the earthquake and tsunami off Sumatra to be a sign of Judgment Day, then what matters but the state of your soul when you go to meet your Maker? Does it matter that the giant Condors will soon go extinct? Does it matter that global warming will eventually raise sea levels, flooding valuable human habitats? Does it matter if health care deteriorates, schools fail, and the infrastructure falls apart? Does it matter that some, the last to die in the end, are able to isolate themselves and their children and social set from the growing ills of the world? Do we really have to fix social security, when in just a few years the world will come to an end? Not really, not when you are looking at paradise with one eye and eternal flames with the other.
The world about which the natural philosopher is interested does not matter at all to a soul already imagining itself winging heavenward. Listening to prophecies and imagining all kinds of fancies, the world in which we actually engage is really only a bad dream from which it is better to awaken sooner rather than later. Philosophers no longer wish to escape into an ideal realm, a world more real and true than the Aso-called@ real world.
Concern with the end of the world is also a reflection of the dread that haunts the days of mortals. Each person's death is the end of a world, and that world is taken with them. It is no wonder just now that our minds are on death and destruction and the end of the world. We have war aplenty and now natural disasters on a horrendous scale. New diseases are colonizing the world, bringing a world plague. Water is going to be a problem, overpopulation, food production, running out of oil without a cheap energy source to replace it. There seems to be no end to the problems facing our species on this earth. Indeed, in many ways we seem to be hastening our own demise. Now is the testing time for the intelligence of our species, so much praised as that which distinguishes us from the animals. Now we will find out how intelligent or how stupid Homo-sapiens can be.
47: Happy to be an Animal
Humans are the only animals I know that are unhappy to be animals. All the dogs and cats, horses and mice, not to mention insects and reptiles, seem unfazed by their condition. A cow in the field, munching rich grass on a beautiful summer day, is quite happy to be a cow, not knowing, in fact, what, exactly, is involved in being a cow. Many animals have feelings and thoughts, and not all of these are pleasant, but without hunger or a cause for fear, these creatures see nothing wrong with just being animals. We see no evidence of existential angst on their part, no yearning for the infinite, no frustration about mortality. Animals are content with the satisfactions of their natural desires and do not ask about tomorrow, money in the bank, or remunerative work. Animals are not counted among the unemployed.
So, a big question is why human animals are not content to be animals, but want, almost universally, to be something better, higher, purer, and not mortal like ordinary animals. Ever since humans became aware of what made them different from the animals around them, they have been obsessed with creating and maintaining superiority over the "merely" natural or animal. Humans have language. Without that, I doubt they would ever have thought to distinguish themselves from other animals in the theoretical way they do. It is hard to see how an animal without language could have a very elaborate or self-reflective taxonomy of living things.
Language is the vehicle of thought and communication. Through it we can imagine a world, not of our own creation, but partly the work of generations of thinking humans, building, fighting, legislating, litigating, policing, educating, training, and existing in complex economic cycles, social institutions, political settings and historical periods. Human frustration with being an animal grows out of these very imaginings that language and thought make possible. We can think of all kinds of things that do not exist. We can imagine utopias where everyone lives in peace and harmony. We can imagine a benevolent God who created the universe with only the Good in view, and who even now guides our faltering steps in the ways of Providence. We can imagine Heaven and Hell, though Hell more vividly than Heaven. We can imagine possessing immortal Souls that can survive the disintegration of our animal bodies. We distinguish Higher and Lower, the Pure and the Impure, morality and mere fleeting animal satisfactions.
This yearning for something better, something meta-animal about human beings, is the cause of much human suffering. When the spirit and the flesh are separated, and the flesh is made base for glory of the spirit, the human animal becomes unhappy, contracts, and the person becomes more and more one-sided and fanatical. For to run away from flesh as though it were the devil is to create a deep division in the unity that is the full human animal, flesh and spirit, ego and heart, mind and body. The unhappy animal is one that is asked to be something that it is not, a pure angelic being, unaffected by the passage of time or events in the world. To think like that is to suffer the full effects of original sin, and to take on a burden that our animal frame was never meant to bear.
48 Competition or Cooperation: Which is better for Society?
Human beings are paradoxical. We are social animals with a large antisocial streak. One unavoidable fact is that we are dependent on each other for the life of the whole society. The language of cooperation grows out of this. Our mothers teach us to share with our brothers and sisters, and we are, finally, meant to see the whole of humanity as a family.
Our ideas of social justice and fairness come from the ethos of cooperation. We are taught to get along with others, to make compromises, to pull our own weight the world. If only everyone would cooperate, as the saying goes, there would be no more war, no more abject poverty, and a common fight against crippling diseases and natural disasters. The principle of cooperation entails that sometimes we ought to give up for the common good what we most desire for ourselves. We are asked to make sacrifices in the belief that what is good for the whole society is also good for the individuals who compose it.
Prehistory shows that cooperation has always been an evolutionary plus for the human species. It enabled individuals to band together in projects that no one person could realize. When civilization first began, cooperation was essential for farming, irrigation projects and the division of labor. Cooperation, not always voluntary, has been the basis of both ancient and modern life.
At the same time, human beings are competitive. As more and more goods are produced, inequalities arise in their distribution. The hierarchal arrangement of all ancient societies meant that those at the top of the social order received more and better quality goods, while those at the bottom toiled unceasingly for mere subsistence. The perception of less and more led to the stirring up of competitive desires to outdo one's neighbor. Wealth lends prestige to its possessors and bolsters the ego of successful competitors.
The desire for more and more good things for one's self and one's family is greed. Nothing is enough. There is no natural end to it. Greed, on the perception that there is not enough of the good things to go around, breeds competition. The thinking of a competitive person, who wants more and better than his neighbor, is that since there is a scarcity of desirable goods, the individual must get out there and fight for a share. There is an attitude about the world, and what the good life is, that lies behind seeing it as a competitive arena in which there are winners, and, regrettably, also losers.
Look at all the possibilities of competition in our world. We compete in sports for medals, in school for grades, in work for promotion, in war for national advantage, in art for fame, in business for money, and in politics for power. For the winners of competitions there are fat wallets and big egos. What is there for the losers? What is the ratio of winners to losers? Obviously there are many more losers than winners. It is even less than a zero sum game.
Competition does have a positive side. It encourages innovation and creative thinking. Effort is required to come out on top of a competitive process, new products and institutions are the results. No doubt greed does provide many people with the motivation to compete. It may even have been that competitiveness between humans helped the species to thrive as it has. The question now is whether competition will be as valuable to the species in the future as in the past?
Competition, by its nature, breeds a non-moral individualism. It makes people look to themselves first, and to look at others as potential rivals. We become suspicious and fearful. Competition separates us and breaks the bonds of society, creates factions, and makes cooperation more and more difficult. This could now be fatal to the human species. We do not have to look very far into the future to see challenges looming to our very life on this planet. Just ahead we are looking at global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer, overpopulation, tidal waves, incipient pandemic, deforestation, over fishing, pollution, and nuclear waste. Some of these are partly the result of the kind of competitive world we have created. It will be all we can do to the survive on this planet, and it is sad and ludicrous to see human beings fighting each other when the only thing that will save us is cooperation on a universal scale.
49: Killing Human Beings
Killing a human being is thought to be wrong. Yet humans often kill each other. Are there any moral borders to the wrongness of killing a human being, or is it wrong absolutely? Does it make a difference if, or where, one draws the line? Most of the time we know what killing a human being is, and we know that it is wrong. There is no law of nature that enjoins us to engage in mass slaughter, yet wars are perpetual. Murder out of greed, spite or rage is obviously wrong. Yet we condone the taking of human life in self-defense, and we condone or forgive it in other cases where there are extenuating circumstances. Are there such circumstances in the case of killing unwanted fetuses or moribund hospital patients? Sometimes the rationale for abortion and euthanasia is given in terms of a distinction between a person and a human being. Persons have full consciousness, memory, and personal identity. Neither a fetus nor a moribund patient qualifies as persons. They are incapable of doing what we expect from full persons. Killing them, though often regrettable, is not always morally wrong.
Trouble arises if one conflates personhood with being human. It then seems as though we do not actually take human lives when we practice abortion and euthanasia. This cannot be the right defense of the morality of abortion or euthanasia. We must concede that fetuses and comatose patients are human beings. If we think of fetuses or moribund patients as subhuman or not human at all, then our arguments for the morality of these practices are no better than those which have been, and are being, used to promulgate ethnic cleansing and genocide. So sometimes we end human lives, and it is not always wrong. It may be the merciful thing to do, both for the life to be or the life that was, and for the lives affected by these deaths. Ideally, women would not need recourse to abortion, but there will always be circumstances for some women that will make abortion the lesser of evils. The choice is theirs. The moribund cannot choose. This makes the use of medical directives very important. The lengths to which we may wish to go to prevent inevitable death must also be made a matter of choice. There are extenuating circumstances in both directions, and it is no simple matter to choose correctly. However, what we gain in simplicity by condemning all killing of human beings, we may lose in justice and mercy.
50: On Being Yourself
One of the imperatives that came out of the cultural revolutions of the 1960's was the injunction ABe Yourself.@ Why should you ABe Yourself?@ One reason is that >Being Yourself' is better than trying to be someone else, someone you can never be, since you are not that other person. You are always going to be a failure trying to be someone you are not. Wanting to be someone else leads to constant frustration, dissatisfaction, envy, and finally, malice. The injunction also meant something like ADon't worry about the Joneses.@ It does not matter that you do not, but they do, get invited to all the smart parties, drive a fancy car, carry a mobile phone, ipod, wireless Internet laptop, and go in for perfect teeth and flawless skin. What matters is that you are yourself, and that you allow others to be as they are.
However, what if it is a drag in some ways to ABe Yourself?@ Are we condemned always to be ourselves? Has one always been the same, or already changed significantly over time? Are you the same self you were many years ago? Will one remain the same? Are we powerless in the face of the self? I could be a better person in many ways, and I daresay, you could, too. There is room for improvement in all areas. So how is one to improve if one must obey the injunction ABe Yourself.@
A better injunction for living is ABecome Yourself,@ for this emphasizes that our lives are processes in the middle of which we always find ourselves, and outside of which we know nothing. Try to be someone you are not. Why not try? We become what we are through what we are not. Try to be like someone you would want to be. It is true that this leads to a life of striving to do better, and that takes effort, but the self that becomes will thank you for it.
51. The Good of Philosophy
What earthly good is philosophy? Born of idleness and speculation, it adds nothing but hot air to an already overheated verbal environment. Its questions are either so big as to be vacuous, or so vacuous as to be pointless. What is the point of discussing the possible answers to questions without definite answers, or at least no definite answers to which everyone can agree? Metaphysics, in particular, is the most inconclusive of all subjects. Reason can prove nothing in metaphysics, and therefore should shut up about it.
Has philosophy ever turned a wheel, lit a city, or blown people up in wars? No. Like an elaborate Rube Goldberg machine, symbolizing the greatest effort with the least results, philosophy gives every appearance of doing something while doing nothing at all. How are you going to retire on philosophy? What do you do for a living? Yes, there is undoubtedly much conversation that philosophers think is just great. But, to us, who happen to catch a glimpse of these generally secretive creatures, it seems to be talk about things that do not matter in the >real' world, where people do not sit around all day arguing conceptual distinctions, but, rather, hustle for a living.
Enough! What is this but ignorance speaking? Since when has life been nothing more than making a living? Still, philosophy ought to be able to give some reasons why it is a good thing to do. For a start, being good at philosophy is compatible with practical wisdom, fiscal prudence, or business acumen. Intelligence belongs to these different sorts of endeavors. However, the home of philosophy is not in those things. The world of thought transcends business, paid employment and all practical concerns. In philosophy you can freely speculate about ideas and theories, try to think deeply and consistently about things that matter to human beings, like the existence of God, the nature of the universe, the extent of human knowledge, and how we can best live, both as individuals and in societies.
So what are the goods of philosophy, since I believe there is more than one? One important good is developing an independent mind. Such a mind is capable of logical analysis, critical thinking, self-movement and direction. The direction is toward wisdom and truth; however grand these may sound, and how far away they seem. The search takes the new philosopher on a ride through the cosmos of thought and conceptual possibilities. One begins to live in a larger context, which is a good thing that thinking philosophically brings about. Why feel cramped by the fact that your body can only be in one place at a time, when the whole of time and space is open to your mind, and your mind does not care in the slightest about the restrictions of the body. Mental freedom may not be more important than freedom under law, but it is important not to restrict it by the operation of unexamined prejudices and unconscious ideological elements. Finally, and significantly, philosophizing is another wonderful enjoyment in life, and enjoyment, as Aristotle says, is a good in itself. It is a kick to explore the world of unfettered speculation, and even more fun to enter into spirited discussion with other philosophers, and by them, I mean people who like to question and discuss ideas, not just the academically trained.
52. Philosophical Speculation
What is philosophical speculation? Historically, it has been associated with the wilder flights of metaphysical fancy. Plato speculates that ultimate reality is one of Pure Forms. Aristotle speculates that an Unmoved Mover must exist if Prime matter is to move at all. A string of Jewish, Christian and Muslim philosophers speculate that God exists somehow >beyond' anything we can humanly be said to understand. Such words as >faith' and >revelation' point directly to a transcendent Reality. We speculate about things when we do not really know what they are. Speculation is a kind of inspired guesswork. In philosophy, it occurs when science seems unable, even in principle, to answer the questions we want to ask.
It has been speculated that God exists, that human beings have immortal souls, possessed of free will as a power of self-originating choice, that the universe has a cause, and that morality can be derived from God's rules or reason itself. None of these things can be proved or disproved scientifically, and it has been argued that they are therefore more a matter of irrational conviction than reasoned argument.
When thinkers discovered the power of reason in the scientific revolution of the 16th Century, extravagant claims were made. Thinkers as diverse as Descartes, Leibniz, speculated about the ultimate nature of Substance and believed that reason can pierce the veil of appearances and shine a light on the inner workings of nature. A skeptical philosophical reaction against speculation grew up at this time and still lingers in the philosophical community today. Perhaps it is a case of once bitten, twice shy. Francis Bacon, the father of empirical science, talks about the need to tie down the wings of speculation. He thinks unbridles speculation leads to idolatry, mysticism and worse. Yet without philosophical speculation about the things we want to discuss, but which we still do not fully understand, how are we going to talk about them? We must allow imagination back into philosophy, to untie the philosophical imagination, but this time with more awareness of the playful nature of our investigations and the difficulty of claiming definitive knowledge in the realm of philosophical speculation. Knowledge may indeed be the province of science, but free thinking is that of philosophy.
53. Practical Metaphysics
On the surface, Apractical metaphysics@ sounds like a contradiction. Theory is theory, and practice is practice. Metaphysics is what ordinary people think about on the rare occasions when they think about what philosophy is. Metaphysicians are ivory tower types, navel gazers, impractical people whose philosophical speculations are a million miles from paying the rent or taking that next vacation. Metaphysics has to do with what goes beyond all possible observations and bodily experiences. It is about some Absolute Reality that transcends all sensory determinations, or about the absence of any such Absolute Reality, or about the incorrigibility of our ignorance in the face of metaphysical questions.
Paradoxically, as it seems to me, the very abstractness of metaphysics becomes the focus of practices that have immense effects in the world we inhabit. Today, there is nothing more urgent or practical than choosing a metaphysical position from among the wide field of alternatives. Things that cannot be proved one way or the other, that go beyond scientific explanations, play a pivotal role in the competing ideologies of the world. It is because we are at sea in metaphysics, that each and every theory has its appeal and its drawbacks.
A practical approach to metaphysics recognizes that our metaphysical beliefs never go beyond the choices we make in regard to them. One chooses a metaphysical position and uses energy to maintain belief in it. However, it is always possible to move to another theory, for none of them are anywhere near as compelling as the theory of gravity, even though we have little idea what gravity actually is.
Kant took this approach by assessing the relative worth of competing metaphysical theories by a practical measurement. In his view, we ought to live, practically speaking, as if God exists, as if humans are morally free, and as if the soul is immortal. However, we cannot prove that God exists, that we are free or possess an immortal soul. These are posits of faith, and Kant is trying to make room for faith by giving a critique of knowledge, showing the limits of rational investigation into the objects and phenomena of a spatio-temporal world by means of senses experience and detailed observation.
We can disagree with Kant's view. Perhaps it would be better to believe that God does not exist, that we do not possess freedom, and that our souls are mortal. What difference would it make? It makes every difference in the world. Suddenly, what is ineffable becomes crucial to life and death. People live and die for their metaphysical beliefs, for nearly all religions have faith in a supernatural world of arcane forces and influences. It is what the Enlightenment calls Asuperstition.@ Yet this superstition goes so deep that even a rationalistic philosopher, like Leibniz, believes in miracles and that natural disasters can be a punishment coming from God.
For myself, I will keep on living as if I am free and have real choice, while remaining skeptical about Kant's other two desiderata. However, his main point remains. Reason is able to propose metaphysical possibilities, but is unable to settle questions as to their truth. We have to remind ourselves and everyone else that what we choose in metaphysics has unavoidable practical ramifications in our lives. In fact, life forces us to make metaphysical choices, so that even to curse all metaphysical positions is itself a metaphysical choice.
54. Which is more valuable to society, freedom or safety?
There is no doubt that both safety and freedom are important values. Concerns about safety, after all, have their roots in the fear of pain, dying and death. We fear war, terrorists, criminals, and domestic violence. We fear death from disease, pollution, thirst, cold, and starvation. The list of concerns for safety goes on and on. Freedom matters more when the safety problems have been managed to some extent. What good is freedom if life is so unsafe as to prevent you from living a meaningful life? It is true that you are free to choose to live or to die, and the manner of your life and death, but what kind of freedom is it that forces you to choose between evils just to preserve your life a little longer in constant danger?
Thus, it would seem that safety is more valuable to society, because without it, freedom is irrelevant. Safety matters most to most people. However, this very fact may be bad for society, and ultimately bad for the individuals who value safety first. A case in point is what is happening in the United States today. Fear is everywhere. Safety is on everyone's lips. We have to make airliners safe, harbors, nuclear reactors, large public events. Then, we have the water, air, and food to protect from contamination. All are to be made safe from determined individuals intent on bringing mayhem and creating fear.
Safety is a tall order. For a start, life is intrinsically unsafe. One is never too young or old to die. Risks come with the territory of living in a mortal body on a very contingent and unpredictable earth. So there are risks, but how much energy and how many freedoms ought free citizens to give up for the sake of safety? To be concerned mainly about safety is to live in fear, and, since it is not >safe' to live at all, we will always live in fear. That is no way to live. Courage is still an important value, and it takes courage to put freedom above safety as a value for society. The reason is that courage accepts that there will always be risks, but accepts them as part of life and does not allow fear to rule.
If we cherish a life in which human beings make the meaningful choices of their lives, tolerated by others as long they are not harming anyone, then we may not be able to make ourselves as safe as we might be in a well regulated and benign police state, when everyone has identity chips implanted in their bodies to monitor and record the activities and locations of all >legitimate' citizens. Yes, it would be harder for suicide bombers and other attackers to carry out their plans, but at the cost of the complete regimentation of a fearful society. Even then, we have seen that it is impossible to stop all attacks succeeding, especially suicide bombings.
And what happens when a police state ceases to be benign? Then we will see the re-emergence of an oppressive regime like those of recent history that somehow seem to be all but forgotten in >advanced' Western societies. If we used our historical knowledge, we would see that a society that tries to play it safe is asking for trouble. By all means take every reasonable measure to thwart people who want to kill citizens. However, do a cost- benefit, and risk analysis before taking away individual freedoms. On the risks, we ought to be less afraid of terrorist attacks than we are, and more afraid of dying in an automobile accident. What good is it if we strip away civil liberties in the name of safety, only to leave the people fairly >safe' from terrorist attacks, but under-employed, sick, ignorant, and impoverished by the war on terror itself? We must accept some risks to maintain the kind of open and free society that we publicly extol, but which we might increasingly lose in the name of an illusory standard of safety.
55. The Ape and I
Human beings tend to be Platonist or Cartesian. Most people opt for the theory of mind/body dualism as the metaphysics of unreflective choice. Some of the practical and theoretical ramifications of this metaphysical framework are worth pointing out. The most striking is the bipolarity of concepts that runs throughout the Western tradition. A number of them parallel this fundamental division. The oppositions Pure/Impure, Mind/Body, Angel/flesh, Reason/Feeling, Male/Female, Form/matter, Permanence/Change, Essence/Accident, Necessary/Contingent, A priori/ A posteriori, Speech/Writing, and others, figure largely as a reflection of the ontological division of >what is' into a dualistic framework.
At the top is the opposition of an immaterial soul to body as pure extension, then arises the idea of a purity that transcends the dust and dirt of this world, and, consequently to the opposition Human/Animal and the idea that Homo Sapiens is superior to other animals on this earth. In each of us, there is an Angel struggling to get out.
I, too, have felt the pull of dualism and fallen more than once into "Plato's honeyed head." Because the mind seems to take up no space, it appeared to me different from things that do take up space. Hence mind and body appeared to be different, if not as two substances, then as basic categories. Of course, after studying philosophy long enough, I realized that no form of dualism does justice to our experience and reflection on our world and the universe as a whole. Nevertheless, I had attained a merely theoretical understanding. I could grasp that consciousness and mind are emergent properties of complex physical systems, but I did not feel it at the gut level.
Human beings want to be special. They want to be different from the animals, to have a future beyond time and space, to live or die eternally. The search for significance in the dualistic system privileges one side over the other, and we find the development of one-sided thinking, to the detriment of understanding. Nevertheless, I still felt that uncomfortable feeling of being set apart as special, always guilty of not being, or living up to, my best self, which carried the angelic responsibility of eternity on its back. However, that was before I had the ape experience I now relate.
It was on a beautiful Hockney winter morning in Ojai Valley, California, high on a hill facing the length of the valley, steep hills on both sides, and mountains not far away. There is something about the light and air in Ojai that can induce a psychic trance. I had returned to my old high school and was sitting on a stone wall surrounding the outdoor chapel with the sun coming up on my left, flooding the valley with light; and I stopped thinking. There was looking out over the valley, tout court.
Into my mind, I do not know how, came a vision of a Barbary Ape who lived on the Rock of Gibraltar. Perhaps I saw a documentary about it years ago. Anyway, there he was, sitting on a rock and just looking out over the sea toward Africa.
Then we merged. I became a full ape. It was uncanny. I was an ape and it was liberation from dualism on the level of feeling. There was no longer an angel struggling to get out, and there never had been. It was a relief to suffer only human guilt for things ill done or undone, and no longer a numinous guilt for not being able to cease being the animal I truly am. We are the apes that can do better, and no longer the apes that must mistake themselves for, and long to be, something supernatural.
56. The Wilds
The wilds live on in the imagination of human beings, but originally we humans were part of the wild world. We were great hunters and killers of animals, but we were also eaten by them, gored, bitten or stung by them. Diseases with no obvious remedy ravaged us. The weather blew over us, and how it blew determined our lives. We moved, hunted, gathered, told stories and reproduced. We had only a little control over the environment, and the contingency of life was uppermost in our minds. Here today, gone tomorrow, and you are old if you reach thirty.
In our imagination the wilds are populated by wild animals, animals hostile to human beings, including other human beings, the most dangerous animal of all. Wolves are out there, howling under the moon, running their prey down through the snow. Tigers, lions, panthers, and other vanishing species are padding through the jungle looking for prey. That is the wild.
For the majority of people now alive, in many parts of the earth, the wilds are imaginary. There are no wolves howling in Trafalgar Square, no tigers inhabiting Hampstead Heath, no panthers roaming the South Downs. Many wild animals are rapidly becoming extinct. We no longer have to worry so much about being eaten alive by a hungry carnivore. We have other worries, far from the wilds, like paying the mortgage or rent, procuring money to buy the means of life. We look for work and spend most of our time there in a regimented situation. That is not very wild. Now, to be in a motorcycle gang, that is a bit wilder. Tarzan is wilder yet. He talks to the great apes and, like them, swings from the jungle trees.
The image of the wild is triggered by the coming of pavement and large semi-urban landscapes, where the Awild@ is supposedly kept out. The more I meditate on the idea of the Awild,@ however, the more I see it everywhere. This said; let me grant that house pets and most human beings are not that wild. They are conditioned from an early age to blend in with whatever culture is operating in their area. There has been a >taming' of man over the centuries, and attempt to get him to control his feelings and exercise prudence and good sense in his actions. The attack on pride and elitism in the ideology of Christianity worked to continue this training and taming of man. Nevertheless, we still see horrible massacres carried out up close and personal, with knives and machetes. This shows that people can still be wild with the right incitement. Wildness is the dark center of our being, our origin, and we will carry it within us as long as we are recognizably human.
However, my perception is that the wild has never been stopped, or even slowed. One day grass will grow on our freeways. There is no cement that can withstand the operation of wind and water and plants. Take away the human beings to maintain them, and all the roads, bridges, towns and buildings will fall into decay, and if some intergalactic anthropologists were to cruise along two or three thousand years later, it would be similar to exploring ancient Mayan sites, which the jungle had mostly reclaimed.
The wild does not stop just where our imagination tells us it should, somewhere far away, at the poles, perhaps, or maybe in some parts of Scotland. We tell ourselves, AThat is where the wild is, and it is so sad that it is dying out.@ This is a wrong idea. The wild is outside your doors, in your gardens, whether English or even French. It is in the park, the river running through town, the little wood on the hill. The ducks that swim in an ornamental lake, like the one in St. James Park, have no idea that it is not a wild, wild world. The rats that run through the buildings find in them a primeval forest. The roaches and bugs that come out in the night still have to worry about being eaten and finding something to eat. The wild is all around us and in us. It is true that parts of this wild world have been tamed and put to work, but it is an illusion to think that it is not still a very wild world indeed.
57. The First Wave of Philosophers
The first wave of philosophers looked out on a strange world, filled with wonders and mysterious occurrences. Phoebus drove his sun chariot across the sky each day. The great god Zeus, hidden behind the clouds, hurled his thunderbolts in rage. Boreas came roaring out of the far North to bring us cold in winter. Poseidon sent tsunamis, hurricanes and tropical storms. Hephaestus worked at his smithy deep within the earth. Volcanoes were his smokestacks. The world of thought, too, was a maze of myths and legends, structured by stirring narratives of gods and heroes. All the different peoples had their own Hercules, their own stories about how the animals were tamed, how boats were invented, how they acquired the bow and arrow, and so on with the special tools and abilities of each tribe of people. Not all these stories were logically compatible with each other.
The first philosophers sought to comprehend the universe in a way that transcended individual and tribal idiosyncrasies because they were puzzled by the variety of explanations given for the same things. Different peoples had different stories. They were the first to look for the causes of things in the natural order. One early Greek philosopher, wandering in the hills of Lebanon, noticed shells sticking out of the sandy rock hundreds of feet above the level of the sea. No doubt there was a story about this. Perhaps the great sea god, Poseidon, choked on some oysters and when Triton hit him on the back, all the shells flew up and landed on the hills. But the curious Greek dug into the hill and found that the shells not only littered the hillside, but continued to appear as he dug. The penny dropped. These hills were once under water, and this meant that supposedly eternal, unalterable mountains can rise, and perhaps even fall. Philosophers started by taking up an increasingly critical stance toward all inherited beliefs. They began to debunk myths and legends as superstitions. The conception of the world began to change, but few would know of it for a long time.
The first wave of philosophers turned away from myths and legends about the operations of gods and goddesses. They acquired a taste for logical consistency and wanted to understand the universe in a rational fashion, designing rationality itself, and what counts as good reasoning, as they went along. The reason we now think about magic, the occult and the paranormal the way we do, is because philosophy first assigned normality to the world as we understand it by reference to natural processes and universal laws. First, the poets explained the world by stories of gods, and tried to justify gods' ways to human beings, poetic theogony and theodicy. The first wave of philosophers began to break from anthropocentric forms of reference and sought standards of objectivity and sound reasoning around which a body of truth could form, more secure than what could be found in the confused opinions and beliefs of the individuals, tribes, and cultures that surrounded them.
58. The Second Wave of Philosophers
After a couple hundred years of philosophy, in the 5th Century B.C.E., the second wave of philosophers looked out on a bewildering array of different theories about what the universe is made of, how it came into being, and how it works to produce the variety we see around us. Reason, it seems, can speak with many voices. Thales said that everything is made of water. The Pythagoreans thought that number is at the basis of reality. Parmenides reasoned that only Being is. His opposite, Heraclitus, thought that only change and the law of change are lasting. Democritus explains every phenomenon as a mere collision of differently shaped atoms, and for him there are only atoms and the void. Anaximander thought that the stuff of the universe was >boundless.' There is a little bit of everything in everything. Empedocles advocated the lastingly popular theory that earth, air, fire and water make up everything that is, and that Love and Strife preside over and motivate an ever transforming universe. With Anaxagoras, we find Mind as first principle of the universe.
This last view appealed to the second wave of philosophers, and here we come to Socrates and Plato. AKnow Thyself@ is their maxim. They looked within rather than without. There is so much dispute between philosophers about the world >out there' that it behooves the seeker of wisdom to examine the one who seeks to know. This is harder than one might imagine. Now the soul becomes the center of philosophic attention, and the question is the right way for a human being to live, not the constitution of external objects.
Philosophy was at a cross roads, and the road it took led away from a purely materialistic understanding of the universe as allowed, for example, in atomism. The inward turn of philosophy led Plato right back out again, but this time not into the spatio-temporal world of sense, but the eternal world of the Forms. The universe is ultimately the result of a divine mind, and is designed for the best, whether we see it or not.
Aristotle moves out again and focuses his attention on the changeable world around him. He is interested in the same questions as the earlier Pre-Socratics, and deigns to write a physics, as well as metaphysics. Though critical of Plato in many ways, he, nevertheless, comes to much the same conclusion as his teacher in the end. Aristotle's first principle is the Unmoved Mover, cause of all that moves, and, in fact, the First Cause of all things. Like a giant magnet, the Unmoved Movers draws primordial matter into shapes and give them substance.
Reflecting on a recognizable tradition of philosophical inquiry that goes back to the 7th Century B.C.E., I see the ripples of these waves recurring in different forms. At the moment, outside the analytic tradition, I would say that the second wave is ascendant. There is much uncritical skepticism about the possibility of objective (scientific) knowledge in the forms of cultural relativity, subjectivism, and post-structuralism/modernism. We are very much left to our own limited resources.
Philosophy is Janus-faced, facing without and within. This gives philosophy a tension and pathos. The philosopher is a juggler. Going within leads back out again, and going out leads back in. Philosophy juggles the ideal and real, right and wrong, knowledge and opinion, free will and determinism, being and non-Being, reason and feeling. Everything tries to turn into its opposite. Sometimes the philosopher will go with the flow, and at others try to arrest it. There is an effort in loving knowledge and truth, as philosophers are supposed to do. The pursuit of philosophy indicates a restlessness of spirit and a perturbation of the soul. Yet there are moments in the life of a philosopher of either wave when the work of philosophy does yield insights, intuitions and understandings that make the whole effort worthwhile.
59. Friends or Lovers
Which are better, friends or passionate lovers? Must a choice be made? Sometimes the answer does seem to be >yes.' It is very possible to fall in erotic love with someone whose character one does not particularly admire. This is true with every variety of sexual orientation. The ubiquitous >chemistry' necessary for physical passion does not seem to subordinate itself very comfortably to the orbit of morality or good judgment. Romantic love stories are fraught with obstacles, tensions, and strong emotions. The wrong people fall in love, and sheer chemistry keeps them together outside of society's conventional bounds. Witness Tristram and Isolde. A love potion binds them in a spell of love that goes directly against their moral and legal duties. Morally speaking, Isolde has no business falling in love with Tristram, and vice versa, when she is sailing to England to marry the King.
What happens to these old lovers when the chemistry dies, as from overuse, it often will? Do they become friends, or do they drift apart, becoming merely past chapters of their lives together? I suspect they will not be friends, because they were brought together, not for friendship, but for an intimate physical togetherness and sex. There can be other attractions as well, but where chemistry leads, thinking is almost sure to follow, and all faults will be excused, if not as virtues, exactly, then as pretty blemishes.
Aristotle spoke of three factors that bring people together. One is pleasure. One is usefulness. And the last is a more unconditional love or friendship that is based on a mutual pursuit of what is admirable and good. A chemical love relation is based on pleasure, and is, therefore, liable to be severed when the pleasure is no longer forthcoming. There is no longer any reason to keep the relationship active. Such dissolutions often occur. It is a fact of life. Yet, there is no logical bar to the combination of friendship and erotic love.
In other words, there is no bar to feeling a chemical relation with someone one also admires deeply, and respects. Mutual respect does not rule out hot sex in appropriate settings. However, this does seem to be a pure contingent connection, since being >admirable' does not always mean the same as >sexy.' There is an unavoidable personal element in such matters. The best form of romantic is love is for someone whose friendship you would seek, independently of the excitement of physical attraction. Honesty with oneself can be difficult in this area, but it is best. The trouble is that desire often prevails over what is best, and it is then that we must distinguish love and friendship.
60. Magical Thinking
Waking from the long dream of reason, now nearly three hundred years old, it is a shock for a secular person to see the prevalence of magical thinking in the 21st Century. Science, technology, and common sense informed by rationality, should have eliminated the belief in magic, and yet that has not happened. What is magical thinking, and what is the source of its staying power?
Magical thinking, as I define it, is thinking that goes beyond anything one could possibly know in a conventional way. What we do know, or have good reasons to surmise, are facts and natural laws that have their ground in earthly experience. All our reasonable empirical beliefs connect with that experience. We have no such experience of magical powers. All the evidence for magic is anecdotal and unrepeatable under laboratory conditions. After all the work on the paranormal done by reputable scientists, there is still no hard evidence of the supernatural realm.
Magical thinking roams freely through the vast spaces of logical possibility. Its only restriction is the principle of non-contradiction, whose singular work is to rule out conceptual impossibilities. Thus it is perfectly possible to argue that there are incorporeal powers or purposeful deities that cause things to happen in the visible world but through ways unknown to us. One can claim to be able to control those powers, or propitiate them, and thus earn a living in the world as a priest, a prophet or a sage. No one likes the evil eye, or to be thought polluted in the judgment of the gods or the One God. A person who claims to be able to avert the 'eye' or bring the blessings of the gods, will certainly find a position among the credulous.
It is magical thinking that has worked out all the details of the argument about whether there are no gods or goddesses, many of them, or just one God. It certainly simplifies things to have only one God; yet, whether none, one or many, the thought of a Divine Being is a magical thought, and in such thinking there is no way to prove what is true. For example, in the Council of Nicea it was decided that the Western Christian Church would henceforth bear witness to a Triune God. There is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Heretics are those who can not accept the doctrine of the trinity, or surmount the surface incomprehensibility of doctrine. Some heretics hold that Jesus was purely a human being, and others that he was purely God. On the side of orthodoxy, much fine reasoning went into showing that the Doctrine of the Trinity held no contradictions, despite appearances to the contrary.
All three positions rest on magical thinking. Once you go beyond arguing propositions that have some fairly perspicuous connections to perception and empirical reasoning, you enter the realm of magical thinking. Now we start to imagine that invisible magical beings produce effects in the world in ways we do not understand. Oliver Cromwell, for instance, convinced himself that God's power acts immediately in the visible world, and that he was doing the direct work of God in deposing the King of England, Charles I. His continuing successes only confirmed him in this view.
Part of the allure of magical thinking is that it allows the free play of imagination beyond the bounds of sensation and perception. Though grounded in the faculties of perception, magical thinking creates images that point beyond this world to another supernatural one. What fun, like the Taoist Sage, to voyage beyond the four points of the compass, to spread the wings of your fancy and bring the light of magical imagination to bear on the unseen world. The dove of Kant's imagination wished to fly beyond the atmosphere and take to the stars. In very un-magical fashion, Kant promptly remarks that the dove needs air to fly at all. Yes, in the regular world, that is true, but not for a magical dove that has no need of air to fly. It is wonderful to be able to imagine gods and goddesses, to see Zeus in the clouds and Poseidon in the waves. One can catch a spiritual chill in dwelling on original sin and the prospect of heaven and hell. The whole body vibrates to magical thinking. It is addictive, and gives its practitioners a kind of pleasure that is not quite of this world.
Magical thinking is everywhere and ineradicable in human beings. We are the believing animals. The problem with magical thinking is that it asks us to believe something we can never know. Instead, we act as though belief alone, if only strong enough, can make our thoughts come true. In sum, magical thinking is a species of purely imaginative speculation that refuses to admit that its only basis is the imagination itself. In this, magical thinking differs from art and poetry, since in those creations we never lose sight of the imaginary. The poet knows that poetry is a work of the imagination and makes no claims for anything beyond a metaphorical truth for its images. (This, in itself is no small accomplishment, and the poets can boast of great achievements in shaping the human psyche.) The magical tract, however, presents itself as a handbook for influencing unseen powers. Magic, just like its kindred manifestation, religion, will retain its power as long as people want reassurances that there is something more to life than an animal existence, a meaning and purpose that transcends our individual finite lives, and as long as our ignorance prevents us from explaining things in a way we can understand without reference to occult or supernatural powers.
Meditation 61: The Uncanny Bin
The uncanny is a most neglected category of human thought. When uncanny things happen, it makes people want to look for omens, portents, hidden powers, spiritual orders, and so on. Examples are legion. Even rational people will sometimes change their plans because of ‘signs’ from powers or spirits above. People still ‘take the auspices,’ if not as publicly as the augurs in ancient Rome, then privately in their own private rituals. Most of us are aware of uncanny things that have happened to us or that we have experienced.
The uncanny is unexpected, unlikely, inexplicable, and makes us feel weird, as when the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. There is something about the uncanny that makes us a bit fearful, even if we are not in a dangerous situation. In this respect, the uncanny and the sublime are similar. Imagine a pagan ceremony, or a high mass in a great cathedral. It is dark, flames flicker on the walls. People chant to invoke the god. The participant is caught up in the uncanny strangeness of the world when the individual is taken out of the everyday environment. Life becomes dreamlike. Even outside such ritual contexts, we hear many stories of uncanny experiences and happenings.
For example, a book falls off the shelf and opens to a page that you did not even know you were looking for, but answers your unspoken question. Or, when you are walking through the woods at night and are sure that there are eyes out there looking at you. Or, when you experience déjà vu, and swear you have never been there before. It is uncanny when you turn a corner and meet an old friend you thought was dead. The uncanny also includes all those amazing occurrences that do not look like coincidences, but as something fated or planned in advance.
There is something inexplicable about the uncanny, and this makes it very hard to define except by giving examples, as I have been doing. Freud suggests that you will feel the uncanny when you meet your doppelganger on the street, or when you get the feeling that inanimate things are alive. Once on TV I saw a science fiction show in which a high ranking criminal was sentenced to spend a term in prison on his very own planet. In an act of mercy, the criminal of our story is supplied with a robot in the form of an attractive female. It could talk and act indistinguishably from a ‘real’ woman. At first the man will have nothing to do with ‘it.’ However, over the years, a relationship grows up between them, and we have the uncanny blending of human and the machine. When it came time for him to go home, he decides to stay with his robot, who he now loves as a person. This story still gives me an uncanny feeling.
All these uncanny experiences ought to go into the uncanny bin, until, if ever, we find satisfactory explanations of them that do not require unsupported beliefs or leaps of faith. The uncanny bin is the perfect place to put all the inexplicabilities and amazing occurrences of life. We do not have to understand or have an explanation for everything. Many mysterious and marvelous things happen in the world, including things so unlikely and inexplicable that we want to call them miracles, apparitions, or sendings from another world.
The uncanny is so seductive because it seems to want us to see in strange or unexpected occurrences the working of fate or occult powers. We should resist this seduction, despite the fact that the uncanny does add a disquieting dimension to our lives. It gives things and events a kind of glamour that no rational explanation can provide. There are times when reason does not go where our fancies take us. The uncanny bin is the perfect place to put all the inexplicabilities and amazing occurrences of life. There we can let them work their magic in safety, rather than forcing explanations on them; when, in truth, we haven’t a clue what is going on. The danger, otherwise, is that we will follows the suggestions of the uncanny and posit the magico-mystical world of superstition and prejudice that has proved so damaging throughout history.
It is ok not to understand everything. It is ok not to have an explanation for everything. Many mysterious and marvelous things happen in the world, including things so unlikely and inexplicable that we call them miracles, apparitions, or sendings from another world. All go into the uncanny bin until, if ever, we find a satisfactory explanation in terms that we readily understand without the need for ‘belief’ or faith. The uncanny bin is the perfect place to put the inexplicabilities of life and let them work their magic there, rather than forcing an explanation on them, when, in truth, we do not know what is going on.
Meditation 62: The Will to Explain
Nietzsche wrote that there is at least one thing that human nature will not abide, and that is inexplicable suffering. We might include in this a need to understand the existence of evil in general. Suffering and evil give an edge to our need for explanations. However, the fact that we do find ourselves able to explain and understand many things feeds our curiosity about the universe as a whole and the phenomena within it that we do not understand or cannot readily explain in plain terms. Perhaps part of the problem I address lies with our very success in giving convincing explanations for many things.
The problem is that humans have a drive to explain what happens in the world, whether or not there are any good reasons to embrace a particular explanation. For example, humans have long wondered where they come from, what their purpose is, how the universe and our world was created, why there are natural disasters, wars, cruelty and all the suffering that belongs to being an animal? Many theories have been proposed and stories told to give us at least the appearance of an explanation that satisfies the understanding.
The will to explain can be accomplished in at least two ways. One is through understanding phenomena as conforming to natural law. The law gives us a pattern, and the phenomenon is merely an instance of this law. This is how we understand natural processes. However, since humans are purposeful beings, they also have a strong desire to find purpose in the universe. Religions arise to explain its existence and to give a meaning and purpose to human life. Without that, it seems, our lives are of no particular account and have no particular purpose. Like the seasonal leaves, individuals are born, live through the stages of life, and then fall back, in death, to become recyclable elements of the universe. There is no transcendent meaning in this repetition of lives. In the end, our best guess is that life itself will be extinguished in the dark coldness of space, if not soon, then in a relatively few billion years.
This does not sound so good. Not only is there no transcendent meaning or purpose to human life, all life is essentially surplus to requirements. The universe has no need of life, but life needs the cooperation of the universe. Our will to explain away this apparent absurdity of existence then kicks in to provide a more satisfying and gratifying scenario. We tend to make up explanations for things that actually have no explanations that we can know for sure. This is not a fully rational enterprise, though it is all too human, and only possible for ‘rational’ creatures.
What we get are stories that explain to us the ‘truth’ about matters we really want to understand, but where knowledge is most difficult to achieve. For example, consider the many creation myths that have been told. They are all different and cannot all be true. Taking just the metaphysical topic of the nature of Substance, we find early on many candidates for the ultimate substance of the universe. Thales thought that everything is water, since water can take different forms while remaining water. Anaximander thought that the ultimate substance is ‘Boundless’ from which specific kinds of things, like earth, air, fire and water are generated. Empedocles thought that these four were elemental substances themselves. Democritus held that atoms make up the substance of the universe and that they are uncreated. There are many attempts, all of them arguable.
Another example takes the other fork and looks for hidden purposes to explain the mysteries of life and the universe. Here again, we find nothing but differing stories. All religious writings use narratives to implant their messages. In polytheism we find wonderful stories about gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters. In monotheism we find stories about the creation of the universe according to God’s will and creative power, and schemes of rewards and punishments. The universe was created with an end in view, and that end is known by God, though we know it only with difficulty and faith.
Whether delving into the depths of being, or searching for hidden purposes, the human drive to explain things has mixed effects. On the one hand, it has been a spur to the imagination in making up wonderful explanations about all sorts of things. Some of these, tested by experience and theory, have added immeasurably to human understanding of the processes of nature. Others, to my thinking, are more an expression of wishful thinking than understanding. The ‘ultimate’ explanations found in metaphysics and in different religions traditions remain a kind of magical thinking that is bolstered by the fact that no one else has an ironclad explanation, either.
Meditation 63: In Praise of Mild Skepticism
Not all statements are equally believable. Believability rankings vary as cultural conditions and the state of knowledge and science change through time. Some things are harder to doubt than others. For example, the reason that the founder of ancient skepticism, Pyrrho of Elis, looked strange to his followers was that he doubted his perceptual judgments so strongly that he was unconcerned about falling over cliffs or avoiding fast chariots. So far was he from accepting the evidence of his senses that his followers had constantly to be on watch to steer him out of harm’s way. Obviously, Pyrrho went further than they could in doubting the existence and causal effects of an external reality.
It is true that even a mild skepticism questions all presuppositions that it can find, and finds that there is nothing that cannot be questioned. I can question my senses, and find that they sometimes come up mistaken. However, it does not follow from this that my senses could always be mistaken, since the very fact that I learn about perceptual mistakes means that they take place against a background of correct perceptual judgments. We can always tell a story in which the most seemingly innocent of perceptions is false, but these stories are too far-fetched for a mild skeptic who recognizes limits to justifiable doubting.
For example, I may be a brain in a vat, or living in a matrix without knowing it. The computer screen on which I am now typing may just be a holographic projection, put there while I was made unconscious by persons unknown. As Russell said, the world may have been created five minutes ago and we would not know the difference. Other people may only appear to be human, while they are really robots. How likely is all this? We must have as good a reason to doubt something as we have to believe it.
The mild skeptic does not have to doubt the solidity of the arm chair into which she or he sinks after a hard day seeking truth. (A skeptic is a ‘seeker after truth.’) The strength of skeptical questioning should be saved for doubting things for which we have no good reasons to believe in the first place, saved to combat the voice of dogmatism confidently asserting its truth as ‘The Truth.’ Skepticism comes into its own in the deconstruction of ideologies, and all dominant, unthinking, unquestioned patterns of thought. Skeptical doubt is the first move in a game from which the mild skeptic emerges with a minimum set of unavoidable beliefs for which practical reasons can be given that have the backing of time and experience. However, all such beliefs are conditional, and cannot be held as absolute truths.
The mild skeptic is not bound to doubt strenuously the existence of a physical reality based on sensory perceptions, or to make a great effort to question logical or mathematical truths. Of course, skeptical arguments are nearly always possible, but they stretch credulity. For example, one of the least persuasive doubts in Descartes’ Meditations is that ‘2+3’ might not add up to ‘5’. Yes, we can be skeptical about long chains of mathematical reasoning, but about something as simple and intuitive as that ‘2+3'5’ Descartes needs to invoke the magical thought of a Deceiving Demon to tell us that despite the fact that we cannot see it, we might be wrong in simple mathematical operations.
Mild skepticism is not doctrinaire. It has no axe to grind, but is rather an approach to our information saturated world. The approach is to take everything with a grain of salt, to doubt first, even if one ends up believing something after all. So one’s first response to a theory or an idea ought to be doubtful questioning and reluctance to believe, followed by a need to be convinced with good reasons. Mild skepticism combines liberating the mind from unquestioned beliefs and ideologies, with a reasonable, non-dogmatic and minimalist belief structure. This structure leaves open the question of whether animals like us can ever know ultimate reality, or even determine whether there is an ultimate reality, while allowing us to construct a belief structure that has honorably withstood the non-dogmatic questioning of mild skepticism.
64. The Genealogy of Inwardness
Nietzsche, in his Genealogy of Morals, showed that rather than being eternal and unchanging, our moral sense has been shaped by an historical development in which successive ages forget or no longer understand what went before. Perhaps something similar has gone on with the development of ‘inwardness’ in human beings. Over the course of long centuries human subjectivity has been hollowed out from a life that, originally, had little need or means for introspection and self-examination.
Human beings have always had thoughts and feeling of their own. They knew the difference between themselves and others, their tribe and others. These feelings were expressed in cooperation, in fight and flight, in anger and fear. Our ancestors also felt lust and love, hope and sadness, mirth and hatred. These were ‘inner’ experiences, not in the sense of being logically private, but contingently private and ‘one’s own’ in that way.
To develop a sense of inwardness, the first thing we need is to be able to fix thoughts as ‘ours.’ At the best guess, this power arose with the development of language between fifty or sixty thousand years ago. Use of signs and symbols allowed people to store information in their heads. It enabled a new kind of memory, a long memory, and with it long expectations. Words, as Plato says, go into the soul, that mix of body, mind, heart, ego and spirit and give them form and identity, an ‘inner’ self to hang on to in a shifting world of appearances.
The second factor is the capacity to lie that language gives us. Where Nietzsche speaks of the shift from ‘master morality’ to ‘slave morality,’ we can speak of a move from bluff extroversion to a more refined inwardness. Lying does not come naturally to the master. Normally, what you see in the master is someone who has no reason to dissemble. The slave, on the contrary, has every reason to lie. The master comes across as a bit dull and prickly about his ‘honor.’
This is funny. Ancient comedy is full of jokes at the expense of masters, who are continually outwitted by their slaves. The slaves become clever in their servitude. They have deepened their reflections by realizing that they are not what their masters think they are. However, to survive, the slaves are aware that they must play along with the master’s view of things in order not to be punished. They have to lie in their very being, and that act carves out ever deeper terrains of inwardness. At the same time, our idea of the ‘self’ now enlarges and becomes deep and rich with intimations of ‘passionate self-actualization.’ Finally, they become the masters themselves, but this time with a more developed inwardness.
Plato speaks of the “Turning of the Soul,” where youthful preoccupations with the world are turned inward in moral reflection. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates tells us. We ought to prefer reflective discontent to ignorant bliss. This moral reflection was alien to the ancient Athenian world, so alien that Socrates was put to death, in part because he ‘turned the world upside-down.’ He seemed to overthrow the poets and the conventional morality of the Greeks. He seemed positively impious in the way he undermined the verities of the age in which he lived.
Socrates asks us to examine our lives to discover if they are worthy of human beings. As we explore this inner world, we find out more and more about it. The very act of looking within creates an inner landscape to explore. Simultaneously, we discover and elaborate a language to describe and suggest an inner life.
After Socrates’ moral turn within, Western culture experiences the Christian religious turn within. The Christian religion seems almost purposively designed to create deeper and deeper inwardness, an increasingly complex idea of subjectivity and self or soul. This second stage can be summed up in the notion of ‘confession of sins.’ In order to confess your sins, you have to know what you have done that is wrong or sinful. You have to watch yourself, to have a video running, as it were, of everything you are doing in order to know where you have gone wrong. Confessing sins of the flesh is especially good at carving out inwardness. We must learn to inspect our emotions and desires in order to judge their sinfulness.
Now we are used to the idea that everyone has an inner life. However, this inner life is a bequest to us from past generations. Our progenitors mined the psyche under the influence of poetry, religion, history and philosophy. Many miners got killed or injured to give us an inner space as wide as the whole universe. In fact, it is finally hard to tell where a fully developed inwardness ends and the human world begins.
65. Love’s Union
Aristophanes, in Plato’s Symposium, tells a wonderful tale of love’s union. Once upon a time we were ‘two-beings-in-one’, and each of us had four legs, four arms and two heads, Janus-faced. We were strong and united. We rolled along like great big balls, enjoying a non-alienated state of being. Of course, being Greek, we desired more and more power, until we rolled in unison to attack Zeus himself on Mount Olympus. Imagine Zeus’ consternation when he saw us, his own creations, armed and rolling against him. He did not want to destroy us utterly, but we could not be allowed to dispute his authority, so he decided to teach us our weakness by using his lightening bolts to cut us in two.
Since those times, Aristophanes relates, we have been so busy looking for our other halves that we have had no time or inclination to take on the gods. So strong is our desire to unite with our beloveds that if we had the opportunity to be sewn together in a single body, we would jump at the chance. Each of us would be completed by the other, and the other by us. Anxieties of separation and abandonment would disappear, since not even death can separate lovers who live happily together in the same skin until the time comes to die together. What a lovely dream of love’s union. Or is it?
We should remember that Aristophanes is a comic poet. It is an irony that his speech on love should make us laugh at the impossibility of the sort of union he describes in the myth. We know this because, in the story, it takes a god of the forge, like Hephaestus, to meld the lovers together. And, in the unlikely event that you actually found your one and only out of six billion people, suppose Hephaestus did meld you together. What then? Who would you be? Would one personality dominate the whole? If there are two of you in one skin, then conflict is always a possibility, just as inner conflict is a possibility for each of us already. So the proposal brings with it conceptual difficulties about personal identity at the same time as it seems to answer some deep need in the human psyche. The humor lies in discrepancy between our desire for a perfect union and our recognition of its impossibility.
Aristophanes’ story of love is essentially tragic. Yet love is possible and a true lover does desire union with the beloved. What kind of union is this? Obviously Aristophanes’ description of love cannot be right. It is not the kind of union that can be accomplished by a radical surgical procedure. We have separate bodies. We can touch, but we can also pull away. We can die together, but each dies a separate death, and each must say his or her own goodbyes. The unavoidable intrusion of the body means that love’s desire for union with the beloved, whatever forms it takes in actuality, must accommodate arrivals and departures, touching and releasing, being together and being apart. Negotiating this movement is the work of love.
So what sort of union is appropriate to love’s desire? Taking a wide conception of love, it seems to depend on the sort of relationship one envisages. The union desired by romantic lovers, spouses, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and friends differ in many ways. Love desires a union appropriate to the relationship in the changing situations in which those who love each other find themselves. Children grow up, lovers separate, everyone dies, friends move away, and the union desired by love changes accordingly. However, not even death or separation can break love’s desire for union, in spirit if not in physical nearness.
66: The Ethics of Belief
Are we ethically responsible for our beliefs? What choices do we have where our beliefs are concerned? How far does the world impose beliefs upon us and to what extent are they a matter of personal commitment? Why should it matter, morally speaking, if we are responsible for our beliefs or not? Rules of conduct are rules of action, and we hold people morally and legally responsible for their actions. Yet people act upon their beliefs, whether they are well founded or not. Thus to the extent people choose their beliefs, they are responsible for them, and the behavioral consequences that follow from them. The formation of belief, therefore, falls under an ethical imperative to believe what is true, while basing this belief, as far as possible, on good evidence.
Not all beliefs are chosen by us. Where this is the case, our moral responsibility is limited. For example, the core beliefs by which we live unreflectively from an early age are given us by family, neighborhood, country, religion, culture, and so on. This initial dose of belief is open to revision upon questionings, and part of our ethical responsibility with respect to these beliefs is precisely to question them. Other beliefs for which we are only minimally responsible are those that we form on the basis of perceiving the world as it appears to our senses. Here the world mostly has the last say, though there are cases where we can be deceived by appearances, as in the case of illusions, mirages, delusions and the like.
So what are the areas in which we do have some choice in what we believe? We do not have much choice in what to believe when it comes to simple sums, the shapes of geometrical figures, the axioms of logic, and so on. In science, beliefs are backed up by evidence, but held only as long as nothing better comes along. Here our choice in what to believe is quite severely restricted, though not as much as in the a priori sciences. Competing scientific hypotheses allow individuals a choice about which hypothesis to support. Nevertheless, all the various hypotheses compete on the basis of empirical evidence of one sort or another. The moral responsibility of the scientist is not to believe anything for which there is no good evidence, and to be open to a possible change of belief in the light of later discoveries.
So, if the main moral responsibility we have for our beliefs does not lie mainly in our childhood upbringing, perceptual beliefs, scientific hypotheses, mathematics or logic, then where does it lie? It lies precisely in an area not covered by perception, common sense, scientific or a priori investigation. It lies in an area where there are no definite answers, or none that satisfy everyone. We are in an area where we want to believe something, but realize that we have no compelling evidence one way or another. Here we must choose to believe, and we have nothing but intuition and good sense to guide us.
Among the beliefs we choose to accept and act upon are such things as the reality of the external world, the efficacy of causation, the predictability of nature, and most importantly in today’s world, religious beliefs. Here one is morally responsible for what one believes, since religious beliefs have far reaching repercussions, both for ill, and sometimes, perhaps, for good. My point is that since religious beliefs have no logical or empirical proofs, accepting them must be filtered to see if it is ethical to believe them. If they are not, they ought to be discarded, and not even faith should stand in the way.
Meditation 67: Listening to the Body Talk
There is a perfectly good sense in which my body and I are one. Without a body I would be unable to meditate, to think or feel. I would perceive nothing. Yet this unity of me and my body is disturbed by thousands of years of negative thoughts about the body and its place in the Great Chain of Being. In the Western tradition from which I write, a dominant strain of thought has elevated the mind over the body. The corruptible body is debased and impure, while the mind is non-corporeal and capable of purification.
This prejudice against the body makes it difficult for us to remember to consult it in our busy conversations with our selves. But just because the body is ‘dumb’ does not mean that it is unintelligent. For example, if one’s feet could talk, they would say that wearing high heeled shoes is a bad idea. So who is stupid, the body, or the person who becomes injured by choosing to wear them against the feet’s advice?
The trouble is that the body has been conceived as an animal in need of training. The body must be made docile to human purposes and habituated to things that it would not, perhaps, choose for itself, like tight shoes, cold showers and long dawn runs. The practices of the ascetics show us the lengths to which this ‘taming’ of the body can go. By the time we start enjoying physical pain, the purposes of the body have been totally perverted.
So, yes, I am my body; but no, we do not always remain in unity. My body can ‘say’ one thing, my mind something very different. This sounds dualistic, but dualism is a flexible notion. If you run into my car, I will identify myself with it and say, “You hit me!” If you cut my arm, I will say, “You cut me!” If I lose my arm, it is no longer ‘me.’ For some purposes we identify with our bodies, and for others, with our minds, even though the distinction between them is ‘thought-constituted’ and does not exist in reality.
How, then, do we communicate with ourselves? What in us is talking to what? Surely there must be internal distinctions between my living body and other parts of my personality or ‘soul.’ Mind and body have been historically singled out as opposing one another, but I would add that the aims, purposes and desires of the body can differ also from those of the ego, heart or spirit.
Imagine that a living human body is structured by intentionality and has its own intelligence and will. Is there wisdom or folly in the body? When is it right or wrong to listen to body’s counsels? Do bodies have their own agenda? If so, can we discover what the agendas of our bodies are and bring them into harmony with our actions, thoughts and emotions? Can we use the wisdom of the body to discover what we actually feel about things that we already think we know? Does the body sometimes grasp the situation we are in before the mind does?
The body cannot literally speak, yet it does communicate non-verbally, in large part by introducing chemical compounds into our system that tell us when we are hungry, thirsty, or need to accomplish other bodily functions. Without these compounds, we would not know sexual desire, fear, hope and despair, or elation, intoxication, and joy. In this fashion, the body can respond to a situation before the mind can catch up to what is happening, as in the experience of feeling the hairs on the back of one’s neck stand up before recognizing the cause.
An example from my life occurred when a doctor remarked that one can die from smoking related illnesses even years after quitting cigarettes. On an intellectual level I understood this, but my body had its own reaction, which was not to be philosophical about the prospect of death. I lost blood pressure and became dizzy. It took quite awhile for me to recover my equanimity.
This experience made me pay more attention to my body, for I realized that it does have its own agenda. The body wants to live, and reacts to danger, or even the thought of danger. The body wants pleasure and hates pain. The body loves its desires to be satisfied, but tends not to take the long view. At times, the body’s ‘thinking’ may be shaky, but at other times, it is solid, warning us of dangers we had not conceptualized, and advising us of pleasures not anticipated.
We live as bodies. We live them from a first person perspective; and though the body’s form of communication is non-verbal, we ignore at our peril the signals we continually receive from it. For example, the body tries to tell us when we are getting sick, and that we need to stop what we are doing and rest. Yet, as I know from foolish experience, it is easy to ignore such signals and carry on as if nothing were happening. The result is an illness that is much worse than it would have been had one listened to what one’s body was saying.
So how can we bring our bodies into the internal conversations we have with ourselves? Outside of direct imperatives, our bodies keep a relatively low profile and may be forgotten in the routines of daily life. So we have to give our bodies a voice. We must remember they are there, trying, as it were, to talk to us. We must, from time to time, let ourselves feel our bodies without preconceptions. We must quiet our minds, listen intently, and let our bodies teach us how to listen to them talk.
Meditation 68: The Ethical Suspension of the Teleological
Meditation 69: Two Relativisms
Relativism is the view that our preferences and perspectives indelibly color the judgments we make. Furthermore, our preferences and perspectives are themselves relative to physical constitution, upbringing, culture, local customs, and common beliefs. There has been a running battle in philosophy over whether, and to what extent, relativism overturns claims to objective knowledge. Relativism, thus conceived, is associated with skepticism about the possibility, scope and limits of human knowledge.
A paradox of relativism is the difficulty of defending its truth in a straightforward way. For example, we might ask “From which perspective is relativism true?” If all our judgments are relative to one perspective or another, relativism itself appears relative, and of no greater weight than one that denies relativism and claims access to objective truth.
Despite this paradox, the relativism of human judgments and values has refused to go away. From a non-dogmatic perspective, relativism expresses undoubted truths. Sometimes it feels hot to you and cold to me. A hot left hand feels cold in lukewarm water, and a cold right hand feels hot in the same water. Opera lovers enjoy operas, and non-lovers dislike them. From one political orientation or ideology, tax cuts look like a good thing; from another, they look bad. Who is right? The natural thing to say is that in some cases, at least, being right or wrong is relative to orientation and perspective. We can be certain in ourselves that we are right, but this is unavoidably relative to the conditions and experiences that formed our beliefs and desires. Certainty is no criterion of truth.
Given that relativism remains a permanent possibility of thought, how are we to regard it so that is does not undermine our investigations into the truth of various matters? I see two sorts of relativism. The first is aggressive and proud of itself. It says that all truths are relative to the individuals who hold them, and that truth itself is perspectival. There is only truth from a perspective, and each perspective guarantees the truth of its object. All judgments are true for those who make them. This is a relativism of despair, for nothing prevents perspectival truths from clashing, and there is no way to adjudicate between them.
A better form of relativism reaches a more humble result. As well as saying that truth is a matter of perspective, we ought also to say that falsehood is a matter of perspective. What the existence of relativism shows is that our views are partial. Their partiality derives from the different perspectives that undoubtedly affect how human beings make their judgments and valuations.
Humble relativism advises us not to take the perspectival nature of our judgments and valuations to show that what we think is simply right, and that what others think is simply wrong. Remembering relativism helps us to be suspicious of our own beliefs and judgments. We must remember that no matter how convinced we are in the rightness of our cause or truth, such convictions do not count as evidence for them. Conversely, it reminds us that we may learn something from those whose perspectives differ from ours. However partial the views of humans inevitably are, they may have an angle on reality that we should try to understand before we dogmatically condemn the ‘other.’ It is hard to listen carefully to a person one knows is ‘wrong’ from the start, just because he or she believes something different from oneself.
Relativism can move in different directions. It can become dogmatic about perspectivism, or it can become humble about partial human truths. The first makes relativism into an absolute, while the second simply puts it into the mixture of thought and investigation. Such a view of relativism does not foreclose on the question of objective truth or the superiority of some judgments over others. However, it does prevent us from becoming dogmatic about the adequacy of any single framework of understanding, thus doing justice to the complexities of the world we try, with difficulty, to understand.
Meditation 70: Conceptual Outer Space
Philosophers have always wondered about the limits of our understanding. How far does our comprehension of the universe extend? Is there some Being that exists in itself independently of any description we might give of it? Is there a non-conceptual reality that exists beyond our words in conceptual outer space?
Philosophers have approached conceptual outer space in different ways. Plato had a two-tier view in which the world of becoming is not fully real, and the world of Pure Forms is true reality. And yet these Forms escape formulation in words. Aristotle distinguishes Pure Actuality (the Unmoved Mover) and Pure Formless Materiality (Prime Matter), neither of which can we fully understand. St. Augustine puts God in a timeless world of Eternal Truth, while we exist in time. There is the temporal world and the Timeless World of the Mind of God. We cannot comprehend the Mind of God. Our minds are finite, God’s is infinite. Words fail us. Finally, in a less theological vein, Kant splits the conditioned phenomenal world off from the unconditioned Noumenal World, which we can never know, but about which we endlessly speculate. As we get further from the practical contexts in which it is used in communication, the grip of language weakens.
Think about the earth and its environs. With a massive core of liquid iron, dense rock reaches to a thick band of waters and lands. The surface is intricately carved by the work of wind, sun, water and ice. It teems with life. Many species and myriads of individuals creep, crawl, and fly on the planet. They all have their different shapes, colors, physical abilities and reproductive habits. Here, earth’s complexity is manifold.
Leaving the surface of the earth, we enter a thin shell of atmosphere. As we travel outward, the density diminishes. The air thins out, and after escaping the gravitational pull of the earth, we enter outer space. This ‘empty’ space may not be a complete vacuum, but compared with the density of the earth, outer space is very empty indeed. However, even if we travel to the far reaches of intergalactic space, we will never leave the universe that contains the earth and all its bustling inhabitants. There is a continuum that links outer space with the earth. We can look out from the earth toward outer space, and we can look at the earth from outer space, giving us a larger view or ourselves and the universe.
This is analogous to the world of concepts in which human beings live and have their being. The densely packed web of concepts we use to think about things is like the intricate surface of the earth with its many varieties of things and life forms. Our language is nearly as complex and subtle as the world we face. It is a very flexible instrument, dense with concepts arranged in structured semantic and syntactic systems. Most of these concepts are quite thick and provide the context of linguistic meaning in which we live. Of course, life is bigger than language, and not all experience can be put into words, or structured like a language. How are we to think about this?
Strip language and concepts from my mind, and it ceases to be differential. There are no distinctions, no recognition of kinds of things, and no analytic thought. It is hard to say exactly what exists for a mind without concepts. The world appears to consciousness when distinctions arise. Self is not other. Day is not night. Life is not death. Waking is not sleeping. We cannot help thinking in opposites and contrasts. All discursive and analytic thinking depends upon discriminating differences.
Following the analogy, as we ascend from the surface of the conceptual earth, we find the concepts thin out. The areas of dense concept populations are closest to the conceptual earth. These thick concepts describe the phenomenal world of perceptual objects, as well as moral and aesthetic experiences. As we move away from the surface of the conceptual earth, the concepts thin out and become emptier and more abstract. In this way we distinguish ‘thick’ from ‘thin’ moral concepts. Examples of the former are being ‘courteous’ or ‘boorish,’ and of the latter, ‘good’ and ‘bad’, ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Out in the conceptual stratosphere, we find the ideas of mathematics and logic. Beyond that is the bare concept of ‘being’ itself, which is supposed to contain everything, but is actually empty of content. Being becomes indistinguishable from nothing at all. At this point, the thought of ‘what is’ enters conceptual outer space.
As in the case of the earth, we do not enter another universe when we venture out into the great vacancy of conceptual outer space. We just come to the end of our concepts. Beyond that, there are only wordless experiences. This is not the fault of the universe or of ourselves, but a reality with which we must come to terms. The limits of our concepts point in two directions. Looking back from conceptual outer space to the dense world of meanings shows us that our conceptions are always partial and limited. Looking out from the world of meaning, we see conceptual outer space as the permanent horizon of our thought and discourse. We do not have to divide reality into two. We can recognize the continuum that leads from here to conceptual outer space and back again.
Meditation 71: The Earth is a Human Petri Dish
The earth is a human Petri dish filled with the stored energy of the sun. For ages, the sun has been worshipped as a god. Plato compared it to the Form of the Good. For the Greeks and for many other ancient peoples, the divinity of the sun was plain from the fact that without the sun, life, as we know it, would be impossible. The sun provides energy to power life on earth. By photosynthesis plants grow. Vegetation turns sunlight directly into life and stored energy. Animals use the heat and light of the sun to find their food, survive and multiply. Plant eaters use and store the energy of plants. Predators use the energy stored in the bodies of their prey for their own survival. One way or another, life on earth depends directly or indirectly on the power of the sun. Our small earth, itself, is the sun’s castaway, and its molten core a remnant of the sun’s great heat.
What happens when a life form hits the mother-lode of energy? I propose to examine this question by exploring an analogy between life in a Petri dish and life on earth. In the humble Petri dish we find a bowl of finite size containing a most nutritious gelatin for micro-organisms to eat. We put a small number of them into the middle of the Petri dish and see what happens. Suppose that they love the nutrients, and start eating. Soon the energy in food leads to population growth. The faster they eat the more of them there are. The more they are, the faster they use up the food. Within the finite Petri dish, they eat like there is no tomorrow. Starting at the center, a desert begins to form as the nutrients are exhausted. Unthinking, they eat their way to the edge of the dish, using up all available resources at ever increasing rates. Finally, with nothing to eat, the micro-organisms die out.
Now look at the experience of the fire using hominids who evolved into what is ironically called ‘homo sapiens.’ For millennia, there were many trees, and few humans. Throughout pre-history and most of history, too, humans burned wood to provide heat and light. Mainly by burning wood, but also cow dung, loose coal, or peat, humans found a power that was useful in many contexts for many purposes. There are, however, substantial limits to what can be done with a simple wood fire, though the discovery of charcoal and the bellows did allow developments in pottery and metallurgy after the last ice age.
It is amazing what humans built and manufactured by burning wood or charcoal, but they hit the mother-load of energy with coal and oil. Coal powered the steam engine. Oil powered the internal combustion engine. Humans had discovered a completely portable energy, found in abundance in many places and useful in a thousand different ways. The food in our Petri dish is oil, and humans are behaving just as the micro-organisms do. We are gobbling up the earth’s resources at ever faster rates.
The analogy is not a perfect fit. Though our Petri dish, the earth, is as finite as the glass container, there is more room to maneuver. The earth’s systems are dynamic and contain many possibilities, many possible futures. The micro-organisms in the Petri dish have no way of replenishing their food stores, while humans do. Also, the individual micro-organism does not speculate about the effects down the line of eating and multiplying, or about whether its environment is finite or infinite. Humans do have reason and forethought. They can ‘arm themselves against a sea of troubles’ or they can watch and wait for the wreck, as sailors of old, when their storm damaged vessels ploughed inexorably towards a rocky coast.
The heart breaking thought is that it may be too late to prevent the mass extinction of species, including homo-sapiens, now living on a Petri dish earth with finite resources and a growing human population. We do not know for sure whether it is too late to save ourselves and other threatened species, but in any event, we have to do what we can. Unfortunately, human desires and appetites come into play when considering what policy to pursue in contested areas of action and desire. There are many competing interests, perspectives, and values at work in the world; and, while human beings are fighting each other, and are unable to come up with a consensus about the most rational thing to do in the circumstances, the changes we are collectively bringing to the earth’s previous ecological balances are piling up like a wave about to crash. If we want to continue living on this planet in anything like the style to which most people would like to become accustomed, there has to be a collective realization that we have been living in a fool’s Petri dish, that fossil fuel is our gelatin, and that we have to get a grip on our desire for the short term gratification of our appetites, or we are not going to survive in anything like our present form, if we survive at all.
Meditation 72: Peace of Mind in an Uncertain World: The Virtues of Non-Dogmatic Skepticism
In a rising tide of dogmatic and unquestioned belief, it is urgent to assert the virtues of skepticism. Of course not all forms of skepticism are defensible, but I defend a non-dogmatic skepticism that questions first and believes later. For help in this task, consider the two main forms of ancient skepticism: Academic and non-dogmatic or Pyrrhonian skepticism (named after its founder, Pyhrro of Ellis, who lived between the 4th and 3rd centuries B.C.E.).
Academic skepticism is dogmatic and claims that knowledge is impossible for human beings to attain. We cannot know anything, and if we could, we would be unable to assert it, and if we could assert it, no one would understand us. Claims to knowledge of the truth are illusions that need to be combated by all available means. The skeptic’s job is to show how all truth claims fail before radical questioning.
The spirit of Pyrrhonism argues that Academic skepticism is too strong. How, asks the non-dogmatic skeptic, can we know that we know nothing? The Pyrrhonian skeptic does not make such a strong assertion. The claim is only that it is very hard to be sure that one has grasped the final truth of any matter, not that it is absolutely impossible. A less prejudicial skeptic seeks the truth with an open mind. The skeptical mind is a thinking mind.
Skeptical thinking is particularly valuable as an antidote to the desire to believe in things for which there is no rational or empirical evidence. The will to believe in such things has grown to the point that the contrary beliefs people hold turn into opposition, aggression and finally violence. Belief in Absolute Truth is a breeding ground of intolerance and bigotry.
Here, an initially skeptical attitude arms an individual with questions, arguments and strategies for detecting and disarming unfounded beliefs masquerading as certain truths. Skeptical questioning reveals the ground of Absolute Truth to be a mine-field of conflicting and irresolvable conundrums. The recommendation of non-dogmatic skepticism is to suspend belief in order to bring about peace of mind. After the suspension, one is no longer torn between unsupportable assertions, but free to explore issues from all points of view.
Outside the arena of conflicting transcendent claims, the skeptic is just like everyone else. However, the first impulse of the skeptic is to doubt, and he or she must be won over to belief by a preponderance of evidence and good arguments. Even then, the conclusions reached are nearly always tentative and revisable in the light of further evidence. The skeptical life brings a serenity of mind that comes from releasing oneself from contentious unprovable views. At the same time, it brings a kind of exhilarating freedom as one feels one’s prejudices and mental insecurities falling away. The skeptic lives in an open-ended connection to the world and other people, continuing to seek the truth without boundless optimism, but also without despair.
73. Emptiness and Aristotle
A Buddhist theory has it that we will be enlightened when we realize the emptiness of the phenomenal world. At that moment we will be freed of the illusion that anything in or out of our experience has independent Being and existence. How are we to understand this from a perspective within the Western philosophical tradition?
Western ontology developed in Greece and found it fullest abstract expression in Aristotle’s account of form and matter. Everything we encounter in the world is ‘formed matter’. Nevertheless, we can distinguish between form and matter in thought. Knowing what a thing is gives us its form, perceiving the individual thing acquaints us with the matter making it up.
Aristotle defines substance as an amalgam of form and matter. Matter gives us objects to perceive, while form gives us the concepts by which we can think of objects. Substance is what remains self-identical through change, but if the changes are too great, a substance can be destroyed. A mound of wet clay goes through many changes to become a pot. In its final state, the pot is an amalgam of matter and form and it remains more or less the same throughout many changes. However, if it falls and smashes on the floor, it ceases to exist as this particular substance.
On the Buddhist view I examine, we have to explain why things appear to have independent existence and being when they do not. This is summed up in the Buddhist idea of the ‘co-dependent origination of all things.’ Every so-called separately existing thing is part of a great interrelated causal nexus that accounts for the appearances of independently existing things. Nothing escapes change, remaining eternally what it is, and having a completely independent existence. There is no metaphysical substance ‘behind’ the changing phenomena. Non-being clings to them and cannot be shaken off.
Does non-being cling to Aristotle’s metaphysical idea of substance? Can we see the doctrine of dependent co-origination in his theory of causation? Can Aristotle’s account of substance accommodate the realization of the emptiness of things? Matter is real in Aristotle’s system, and it is indestructible, though it can go through many transformations. At the same time, pure or ‘prime’ matter is inconceivable, defined as sheer ‘potentiality’ (of taking on form). Thus the idea of matter is itself, ultimately, empty.
Form fares no better. For Aristotle, primary substances are individual beings that fall under different categories. For example, a particular horse is an example of a primary substance, while the concept of a horse is only a substance in a secondary sense. Forms do not wander around by themselves. However, there is one notable exception. In his Metaphysics, Aristotle grants that Pure Form (without matter) does actually exist, though we cannot understand it. He calls this strange being the Unmoved Mover. Like a magnet, this Form draws order out of chaos. Yet the idea of ‘Pure Form' is as empty as the idea of ‘Prime Matter.’ We are only acquainted with substances as mixtures of form and matter. Thus, the idea of the Unmoved Mover is itself empty.
Could Aristotle have a sense of the emptiness of things in the Buddhist sense? I think that he could. The things around us are passing away as I write. Some take longer to pass away than others. Time is their emptiness, and Aristotle’s substances come into being and pass away. Perhaps the difference is only that Aristotle thinks that things come into being and pass away, while a Buddhist may only see phenomena coming into being and passing away. Neither has to reject the reality of the world around us, but only to see that this reality is not absolute, and, therefore, to realize the emptiness of both things and appearances.
Meditation 74: Why Work? Employment in a Technological World
What are the forces and traditions that shape our view of work and employment? In the West, at any rate, the story goes back to the Garden of Eden. Did Adam and Eve have to work in paradise? Were they unemployed if they did not? It seems that God never meant for us to work, not in paradise, and not, I suppose, in heaven. This suggests that work is not such a great thing in itself, and it would be better if no one had to work. We could use our time in ways not regulated by clock and the rules of employers. Human nature could take a leap forward if people were free to develop their unique capacities rather than waste their lives in repetitious labor.
So, if we would be more fulfilled, in general, with a life of leisure pursuits, however seriously we take them, and however hard we ‘work at’ them, why is the thought of a life of leisure so horrifying? Why do we immediately start thinking of lazy no-goods, lying around all day doing nothing? Idle hands, we say, are the Devil’s Playground. Obviously, we are not to be trusted to handle our own time. Why not? First, it was because of the expulsion from Eden, and second, because of the ethic of disciplined work required by industrial production.
At the Fall, God was displeased because Adam and Eve broke the only rule he made for them. For this transgression, as we know, women were to give birth in pain, and men to make their living by the sweat of their brow. That was a long time ago. Perhaps human beings can start thinking in different ways. Giving birth is now less painful for women. Perhaps we can aim to make life less laborious for all of us.
I suggest that the work ethic informing late capitalist economic life has become a reactionary power preventing the productive forces unleashed by the industrial and digital revolutions from realizing their liberating potential. The global capitalist system is wedded to cheap labor and less labor, and yet every society says that it wants full employment. Why? Every time a machine does the repetitious labor of ten humans, people lose jobs. Everyone laments, rather than celebrating the release of human potential to pursue matters besides mere production. The capitalist world should reward people who voluntarily choose to take themselves out of the labor market.
I envisage a world where people who are content with a small living would receive a stipend from the State in return for not working, much in the way that farmers are paid not to grow crops on certain fields. It would ease the job market for others desirous of paid employment. They and the business owners would become the wealthier elements of society, but no one would live in utter poverty.
What would the people who choose not to work do with their lives? Our Western culture builds so much value, self-respect and ego into the idea of ‘working for a living’ that it is hard to see how the people choosing not to work could even hold their heads up. My vision requires a reversion to a previous idea about laborious or boring wage or slave work that was held throughout the ancient world and down to the beginning of the Twentieth Century. Work was looked upon as inferior to leisure. The moment one could live off one’s principle, there was no value seen in working at a drudgerous job.
It is only with the imperatives of capitalism that the emphasis on work and productivity makes sense. When Americans make fun of the 35 hour work week in France, what are they saying? That it is better to work more than 35 hours a week than less? What kind of crazy thinking is this? Why should Americans take so much pride in working hard and long hours with such comparatively little vacation time? The French get it in the neck for having a six week break in summer, the wonderful ‘long vacation.’ Would the French be better off without it?
Do we live to work, or work to live? And if we work to live, and the living is given to us, why continue to work? Just for the sake of working? No, but for the sake of more money. Fair enough. But what if you want to do something worthwhile that does not pay a living wage? You could do it in my world, without worrying about a roof over your head, or finding food to eat. Say you wanted to engage in amateur dramatics, or dance? What if you wanted to build things in the craftsman’s way, slowly and with care? Why, then, you could do those things. Not worrying about having to ‘find work’, the individual is free to pursue objectives that do not generate income. Perhaps you do not want a standard job, but want to volunteer full time for a service agency. This would be possible. There are many legitimate reasons for wanting to opt out of the standard workaday world.
So who is going to pay for all this? Well, it will have to be paid from the surplus of the economy as a whole. Would this prevent some individuals from becoming wealthy beyond belief? The answer is probably ‘yes’, but none of them are likely to end up in the poor house. And besides, the money credited to those opting out of the work force will go right back into the economy. It is a problem, I agree, but unless we start working for a workless world, we will continue to attempt the impossible, striving for full employment in an economy that does its best to put people out of work.
Meditation 75: Sudden Death
Sudden death does not mean a thing to the person who dies. The meaning is all for those who are left behind: family, friends, associates and even enemies. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” The suddenness of ‘sudden death’ strikes those of us still living as a tear in the veil of indefinite existence behind which we try to live, if we can. Sometimes we are forced to look mortality in the face, as when confronted by imminent death due to disease or execution, but this is not the normal course of life.
Most of the time, we would rather not think about death, nor about our tomorrows coming inevitably to an end. Instead, we plan to make plans, talk about next week, next month or next year, as if these futures are, without question, ours to own. When a friend dies suddenly, what one sees is a myriad of plans suddenly without issue. There is the missed lunch date, the vacation abroad in the spring, the next car payment, and so on. There was that trip you were going to take together, and it was always “next year.” Well, now there is no ‘next year’. You can make the trip yourself, but it will not be the same. All those commitments and concerns are now no longer the concern of the suddenly dead. They either become the concerns of others, or they vanish into thin air.
This is how it feels when someone you know suddenly dies. One day the person is there, full of life, and the next, completely gone except for the memories in the heads of others. There is no replacement for the dead, just holes in one’s life where there used to be friends, lovers and family. The elderly know this well. The dead live on in us, but their life is attenuated and fades with the passing of time. In the end they become just another part of the tapestry of one’s life.
Is there anything to learn from a friend’s sudden death? The first is to realize, again, just how fragile is human life. Though we are strong to live, our lives can be smashed in a million different ways. This thought gives urgency to living each day to the full, experiencing life with all its ups and downs. It reminds us not to put off for tomorrow the things we want to do today. It teaches us not to be anxious about tomorrow or next year. Sudden death shows us just how crazy it is to get upset at all the minor obstacles and accidents that life gives us. Anything that gets in the way of living well, with intelligence and verve, is to be avoided. We have time only for what is necessary for us. Sudden death makes us think of what is necessary for our lives and shed the superficial concerns that prevent us from living well. It is the last gift to us from the suddenly dead.
Meditation 76: Redemption Golf
The game of golf, for those who do not know, is very like life itself. Indeed, for some golfers, it is life itself. You can see them any day of the week down at the golf course. They practice hitting balls on the driving range, talk golf with their buddies, wait to tee off, and walk, or, more likely, ride an electric cart through the 18 holes that comprise a game of golf. Along the way, they take these odd shaped sticks with metal blobs on the end and try to hit a harmless little golf ball down the fairway to fall, eventually, into a little cup dug into a green of short grass. This little ball is whacked without mercy from one end of the course to the other, and has only a wistful hope of escape by diving into a lake or hiding in the bushes.
Golf is cruel game that punishes everyone, including the best players. There is no such thing as a perfect game of golf. The lowest score ever achieved on any course is only a record waiting to be broken. At the end of the best round you will ever play in your life, you can still say “How could I miss that three foot putt on eighteen?” If you do not know what I am talking about, perhaps you are blest. In any event, golf calls up many desires and emotions from the range of human life. Nearly all human traits, writ small, are to be found in the verbal and non-verbal behaviors that emanate from golfers as they swing their clubs through a round of golf.
There is fear, so much fear. What if I go out of bounds? What if I can’t find the ball in the rough grass? What if I hit the ball yet again into the lake on the third hole? There are penalties for all these misdemeanors, two strokes for out of bounds, stroke and distance for a lost ball, one in and one out of the water. All this adds to your score, and if you are like half the golfers out there who do not break 100 strokes in 18 holes, you are bound to get penalized every once and awhile.
But think about it. What is there really to fear on a golf course? Getting banged in the head by a flying golf ball, struck by lightening, or hit by a club? The odds against these three occurrences are immense. Besides them, I can think of nothing to fear on the golf course, where the grass is green, the birds are singing, the flowers are waving in their beds, and the air smells sweet. If I shoot 105 instead of a 95, is that something to be afraid of? Do I really have to fear that my ball will go in the water, out of bounds, or lost in rough grass? Not really, and yet many golfers are scared that they will hook, slice, dub, shank or bury their shots. And when you see golfers get angry at the ball or themselves, throwing or breaking their clubs, storming off the course, then you see how much ego is involved in these fears. When you hear them bragging about beating someone, or lamenting at a loss, you know that somehow their very egos have been invested in a golf score, which everyone agrees is ‘just a game.’
When asked to define the game of golf, Mark Twain is said to have remarked that golf is “a good walk spoiled.” This about summarizes the state of contemporary golf, with its thick rule book, penalties, traps and so on. The whole game is designed to make you miserable. However, to relieve this fear and put the ‘walk’ back into the game, I have invented “Redemption Golf.”
The basic idea is that you get a second try to hit the ball right, when, by the normal rules, you only get one. This means that you always get a ‘mulligan’ or a second chance to hit the ball off the tee. You get a second attempt to improve your shot when you are within iron range of the green, and a second putt any time you want one. It is remarkable how often the second attempt is better than the first. And then, to combat fear of water and the out of bounds, redemption golf just does not count the penalty strokes. This is a wonderful stress reliever, as is ignoring the lost ball rules when a ball is lost after everyone says it will be easy to find.
One last minor adjustment to rules is that you can always improve your lie before you hit the ball, giving yourself the best opportunity to hit it well. For notice, it is still possible to shoot a bad score in redemption golf, since you only get two chances. When you see an ‘8’ or ‘Snowman’ on your score card, you know you deserve it. Nevertheless, one’s score does improve in redemption golf, the stress engendered by the rules is relieved, and for me, at least, the walk has returned to golf.
Meditation 77: Enough or Not Enough?
When does a person have enough to live a good life? Is it by possessing the simple basics of life: sufficient food, water, air, clothing and shelter? Without these things, we suffer and die, but, taken together, are they sufficient to live well and thrive as a human being?
In Plato’s “Republic”, Socrates describes as healthy a society in which everyone shares the work according to ability and the modest sustenance it provides. The people are not greedy or envious, taking joy or sadness in the successes or failures of their collective enterprises. In the evenings, they sit on the grass, eat off leaves and drink from gourds. They have no fancy spices, but honey for sweetness, and wine and conversation for their entertainment. In this way, they live at peace with themselves, protected from covetous invaders by their collective ‘poverty.’ They have nothing that anyone would wish to steal.
This bucolic vision is interrupted by one of Socrates’ interlocutors, Plato’s brother, Glaucon, who angrily denounces the society Socrates describes as a ‘City of Pigs,’ unfit for proper men who refuse to countenance a world without war, plunder, call-girls, fancy upholstery, fine sauces and luxury imports from around the world. Glaucon’s world is one of great ambitions, great architecture, literature and even philosophy, for when has philosophy ever developed in the woods? In his view, we need civilization, culture, the distinction of noble and base, rich and poor, the superior and the inferior. Yes, there is strife, but we are made to strive, and without striving we will never reach our true potential. Socrates calls the city that Glaucon describes a “Fevered City.”
Who has the right of this, and who decides when enough is enough? Outside of extreme hunger and poverty, it seems that the judgment that one does not have enough of anything is subjective. When Kierkegaard proclaimed that ‘Truth is Subjectivity’, I believe this is the sort of case he had in mind. No one can tell you that that you do not have enough wealth, beauty, success or renown. Only you can say what is sufficient for you to live in a way that you judge fitting for yourself.
This is a gray area. With the exception of clean air and potable water, both of which are directly necessary for life, the value of the other things are what you want them to be. What, in your own mind, can you not do without? Only you can decide. For example, if you receive only 500 calories a day, you do not have enough to eat, period. But does a person ever have insufficient Beluga Caviar, prime rib, or expensive champagne? When the tap water is potable, does anyone truly thirst if they do not drink bottled water?
Or consider clothes. When, and on what basis, do I judge that I have enough or the right kind of clothes? Actually, I have more clothes than I absolutely need, and some of them I hardly ever wear. My judgment is that I have more than enough clothes, so I do not think much about them. However, a different person with different sartorial interests might judge that he or she never has enough clothes, or at least not fashionable enough clothes.
The same goes for shelter. Enough shelter, objectively speaking, is any enclosed space that provides sufficient protection from the elements and is large enough to lie down. In California, estate agents ask you how much house you want to buy. So you have a choice between more or less house, and what is ‘enough’ house? If you ask the people living in McMansions by the Sea, they will say that any house under 4000 square feet is not enough house. If you ask the poor immigrants living ten to an apartment what would be enough house, I think they might answer differently.
So, what ought we to conclude about whether we have enough of what we need to live a good life? If we go with the grasping world, nothing ever will be enough. Philosophically considered, there is an imbalance living continuingly in want of things that have no direct bearing on one’s well being.
In Plato’s story, Socrates acquiesces to Glaucon’s wishes. He builds the Republic to keep the fevered city from succumbing to its own excesses and attachments to unworthy values. He reminds the company, however, that the truly healthy and happy way to live is the one he described in his rustic idyll of the simple life.
Meditation 78: What is Metaphysics?
What is metaphysics? In the Western tradition, metaphysics concerns the nature and description of an Ultimate Reality that stands behind the world of appearances. One dominant strand holds that we can somehow come to know a world that exists undetected by our sense perceptions and unexplained by the natural operation of causes and effects. Unfortunately, our powers of sense and perception reveal to us only a partial survey of the contingent universe unfolding around us and within us. We are part of that unfolding process, no doubt, but we have profound limitations in what we can do and what we can know. We are radically limited in our contact with the universe, and it is hard to see how, in our embodied state, we can overcome these limitations. Despite all that our sciences have done to inform us of realities unknown to sense perception or naïve common sense, we are unable, using the normal touchstones of truth, to argue convincingly for the character of Ultimate Reality or for Beings that exist in a supersensible or supernatural world.
Despite this observation, no ink has been spared to describe and argue about the nature of a supersensible realm. Philosophers and theologians have claimed special dispensations from Reason or Divine revelation that gives them privileged access to a world beyond the one in which we live and have our being. With these magical means at hand, it seems to metaphysical thinkers that it should be possible to devise a systematic metaphysical theory that is both true and covers the ‘reality’ side of the “appearance versus reality” divide. Metaphysics is conceived as thinking that pierces the veil of appearances and gets right down to what is really real.
So, how is the ‘really real’ to be distinguished from the ‘apparently real’? A close examination of contingent perceptual experience reveals the outlines of metaphysical reality as precisely not the findings of ordinary experience. In experience we find a world of perceptible objects and imperceptible forces that we can measure and in some cases control. We discover a universe in a constant state of change. Stars are born, live and die, planets follow the came course, as do all things on them. We are the stuff of stars and follow their fate. Nothing remains the same. All things flow. This is what we know about the world of our sense experiences.
Metaphysical reality, in the Western philosophical tradition, is the negation of all this flux, namely, an unchanging Reality. However, it is notoriously difficult to say what an ever-changing universe has to do with an unchanging Reality. Additionally, the contingent world we know is morally and aesthetically imperfect, to say the least. It follows that Reality, by contrast, must be supremely good and beautiful. This strand goes right back to Plato, and the idea that there exists a world that is more ‘real’ and more ‘true’ and the ‘so-called’ real world we inhabit in our embodied state. This is the world of the perfect Forms, but their relation to the particulars of which they are the Forms is difficult to describe adequately. How can two things that have absolutely nothing in common be related to each other in any way whatsoever?
A short list of metaphysical theories from the history of philosophy features those that reduce reality to some underlying Substance. The ‘Father of Philosophy,’ Thales, famously thought it was water, but others thought is was “Air”, “Fire”, “Earth” and “water”, the “Indeterminate”, “Love and Strife”, “Atoms and the void”, “ Eternal Forms”, “Being qua Being”, “Mind and Matter”, “the Absolute”, “God”, or philosophical Substance. What is important for my purpose is to note the fact that these theories form such a large plurality. Many of them seem to survive in some form or other despite repeated attempts to refute them. No sooner are they advanced than they possess all the defenses against attack necessary to remain a possibility in the heaven of metaphysical theories. This should make us wonder if we are in a field that is capable of generating knowledge or consensus.
Logic fails to curtail metaphysical theorizing. Prudent philosophers, like Kant, despaired of curbing the ‘metaphysical impulse’ that insists on confusing flights of fancy with knowledge of a supersensible world. It seems that we are programmed to think metaphysically and to attempt to conjure Reality out of thin air.
Kant showed that there is essentially no difference between traditional metaphysicians in the Western tradition, like Plato, Aristotle or Descartes, and the spirit seers, like Swedenborg, who spin gossamer webs of unseen worlds and powers, or theologians with their ideas of God, angels, devils and such. Against taking such thoughts as literally true, Kant argued that reason ought to stop at the bounds of sense, critically aware of the limitations of our powers of understanding. We simply cannot grasp infinity with our understanding, even though we can reason quite well about infinity in mathematics. Metaphysical ideas of God, soul, immortality, the Good, Freedom, Substance, and so on, are not logically impossible, but neither are there conclusive proofs for them.
Metaphysical thinking is misused when we take for reality the ideas we develop in a purely imaginative way. At this point magical thinking is endorsed, and the seeds of discord are sown. Since nothing can be proved to be true or untrue in metaphysics, the assertion of a metaphysical truth opposes other truths that claim metaphysical status. However, they cannot all be true together. Since no one can prove anything conclusively, the fight is really over which theory will triumph. When metaphysical thinking takes itself seriously as absolute truth and sets itself in opposition to all other pretenders, it claims a knowledge that cannot be justified except by extraordinary means.
Metaphysics is a form of magical thinking that intimates a productive relation with a supernatural reality or relies on faith to affirm its basic unprovable assumptions. As such, it is a species of imaginative projection. A single look at the variety of metaphysical, magical and religious systems that have existed in history shows just how hard the imagination is at work in metaphysical thinking. There is much that is wonderful about it as long as we recognize metaphysical thinking for what it is, and for what it is not. The power to think beyond the bounds of sense and empirical reason is a great boon as long as we do not take the conclusions of our speculations too seriously as the last word on what ‘is’ or ‘how things are.’
Meditation 79: Un-inventing the Sacred and the Holy
I will be accused of playing Devil’s advocate when I argue that we ought to un-invent the Sacred and the Holy, but I feel someone has to argue this position. For a start, I will be accused of holding that the ideas of the Sacred and the Holy are human inventions, and this I do hold. However, it appears exactly the opposite to many people who question how the feeble human imagination could create such sublime ideas?
The answer is not that the human imagination is feeble, but, rather, the understanding. Our imagination is incredibly strong, and at time hides itself behind certainties not vouchsafed by any ordinary experience. Everyone just knows that there are sacred springs, Holy sites, temples or objects, each of which has a patina upon it of the supernatural, spiritual or invisible world. The mythical and religious word is handed down through the generations, so that the products of the imagination begin to glow with an almost hyper-reality.
The understanding takes a back seat to the sensuous imagination of invisible powers invested in the ideas of the Sacred and the Holy. Now, after thousands of years of reflection, it becomes possible to see, against the background of altered perspectives, that the ideas of the Sacred and the Holy are human inventions after all; covering over the giant holes in our understanding that existed for so long. Now it is possible to UN-invent them, but is it desirable?
Grant for the purpose of argument that we could live without these supernatural ideas; does this not go against the universal experience of mankind? For as long as humans have gathered together, they have done so around something connected with the Divine. A Sacred spring, stone, building or physical site is a place where the mundane is bathed in Divinity and becomes a place for reverence, meditation and prayer. Sacred places and objects become holy sites of worship and veneration, matters of respect, and self-respect, to maintain and to defend.
How does the universe look when we subtract from it all thought of anything Sacred or Holy? Have we lost anything? Is anything ‘not there’ that was there just a moment before? Or does the subtraction of the Sacred and Holy leave everything as it is, was, and always will be? Does the water of a holy spring taste any different from an ordinary well nearby? Does the denial of the Holy pollute the water in some way? I suggest not. The universe is so amazing, so full of wonders and incomprehensibilities that we need no longer imagine the Sacred and Holy to add to its luster.
The world would be a better place without Holy sites and Sacred objects. We are worshipping our own imaginations, laying a narrative on the world that was never asked for or demanded, and which we now have a means to transcend, relieving the world of a not inconsiderable source of conflict and discomfort.
Meditation 80: Is Fear of Death Fear of Nothing?
In a poem, John Donne tells Death not to be proud. While appearing mighty and dreadful, Death is in reality powerless. Of course, Donne is writing as a Christian, and for him death is a gateway to a new life. We do not have to think of death as an end, but rather as a new beginning. Death is a kind of sleep that will end with an awakening to a continuing consciousness of oneself. Even without this expectation, some people take comfort in the idea that one’s energy, at least, will remain part of the universe. Aristotle and Spinoza hold a similar view. They believe that something about our minds is divine and immortal, the part that thinks timeless universal truths. Of course, that part of our mind never dies, but neither do we recognize ourselves in it. It is as if one were comforted by the thought of leaving a bequest to the universe. This is the comfort parents have when they are able to leave something to their children, through whom they feel they live on, and this thought gives them comfort now while they are still alive to think about it.
Epicurus famously tells us that where death is, I am not; and where I am, death is not. So death is not to be feared, since it is nothing, and we will never experience death. As Wittgenstein tells us, being dead is not an experience within life. We will never know death. This is fair enough, but Epicurus is wrong to think that we cannot be afraid of nothing. This is precisely what we are afraid of, that the world will go on, but we will not be there to witness it. We do not and never will understand death except in an abstract way, and it is often where we are least able to understand something that we are most afraid.
This state of not knowing and being unable to know non-being gives us a blank slate on which to speculate about the nature of death and the possibility of an afterlife. As there is no knowing, the human imagination attempts to color-in the un-colorable. All we can do with death is to speculate about it, since it is our own death that we contemplate, not the deaths of others. Objectively, death is a simple and common occurrence. Subjectively, however, the question is more intimate and private, since only you can live through your dying, and have the thoughts and feelings that you have about it.
Obviously, we have a problem here. All the writings on death, the afterlife, reincarnation, annihilation, and so on, are like so many imaginative projections of our living fears and hopes. Ask what someone thinks about death and you will really be finding out what they think about life, and even, perhaps, their idea of the good life.
So my quest is to see how we might think of death without all the imaginative trappings. I want to see if we can think of death as a simple ending, and ask whether there is anything truly fearful in that end. This is not the same as the fear of getting old and dying which is easier to understand. Dying is something we all go through, but it is something we do while still living. Let us explore the nature of our fear of death and see whether that will help us to understand all the wishful thinking that surrounds it, and the almost universal desire for immortality or reincarnation. By uncovering all that death can mean for the living, perhaps we may find a better understanding of the possibilities of human life.
Meditation 81: The Good Life
What can we say about the good life for human beings? Over the centuries, philosophers and religious thinkers have spun out their theories. Plato’s Socrates holds that life is a preparation for death and that what we do now has eternal significance. The good life is one of knowledge, self-discipline and justice in the soul. Nietzsche holds that the good life is one that we affirm by living fully and with gusto, but with a sense of the tragic dimension of human life. His test is to get us to ask ourselves if we can willingly embrace the thought that our lives will repeat themselves forever in every detail, the famous Eternal Return of the Same. Another popular and ancient view is that we ought to eat, drink and be merry, because death awaits us all. Yet another is the dour religious view that the world, for all its pleasures, is a sink of iniquities. It is really a place where our faith will be tested and those who fail can look forward to eternal suffering. The good life is submission to the Divine Will.
Can we settle on a single definition of the Good Life for human beings? The differences between individuals and cultures, between aptitudes and shaped desires make this very unlikely. Life is short, and perhaps the goal is illusory. So let’s grant that there are various ideas and explore them through a contrast between a generally ‘other worldly’ approach to the good life, and a generally ‘this worldly’ approach. What we think about these things have practical consequences in our lives.
One ‘other worldly’ approach explores the idea that it is through being embodied that people are put into a world of suffering and deprivation. Plato, for example, tells us that the body is an impediment to knowledge and that the soul is superior to the body and ought to rule over it. The Good Life is really lived in Heaven, not on this earth, so the ‘good life’ on earth will be merely the least unworthy life, as seen from the perspective of Heaven. The pain and suffering you have now will no longer afflict you there. Now we see but through a glass darkly; in Heaven we will see the face of God. These are strong ideas and have had a terrific impact on the human psyche over the last two thousand years or so.
Taken to extremity, the 'other worldly' approach shows its disdain for the mortal body and all its frailties. Ascetics show us just how far the ‘spirit’ can overcome the inclinations of the body. At the same time, the ego is to be suppressed. Our mortal sin is the sin of pride. The self must be put away, and this is shown in altruism and self-sacrificing behavior. We ought to lose our selves in service to others. As far as possible, we ought to live in the world but not be part of it. There are higher things than this paltry, insecure and fearful life that we live on earth, a world of sin and evil. Forget this world; it is going to the Devil. What matters is your eternal soul. Think of the end, and the end is nigh.
Now consider a ‘this worldly’ approach to the good life. As I imagine it, we are to celebrate life on earth and not deplore it. The evils of the world can be combated. It is wrong to turn away from the world even if it is ultimately ‘unreal’. We have a duty to make the only world we know a better place for all of us to live. Furthermore, it is not a crime to have a body. We did not sin by being born, because, like all animals, we are born through entirely natural processes. Like the other animals we will die entirely natural deaths, and that will be an end of our individual existences. Like the flowers in the field, we are born and we die. There is no future immortality and no supernatural End, Telos or Purpose for which we exist, and whose accomplishment gives our lives Meaning with a capital 'M'.
So what are the ingredients of a good life from this perspective? Obviously, it is not a simple matter. A number have been proposed, but the basics are the necessaries of continuing life: food, drink, shelter, clothing and community. These are the minimum conditions of the good life. They may also turn out to be sufficient. However, for our complex world, there are, perhaps, other ingredients that play an important role, like a sense of physical safety and social security, of access to healthcare and education, of freedom from financial insecurity and corrupt business practices, of freedom from arbitrary arrest and seizure, of just laws, of freedom to participate in the political process, to express one's views, and to chart the course of one's own life within the rule of law. It seems also that most humans need satisfying human relationships, the ability to serve others, have love and sex in their lives, perhaps children to raise, and eventually the opportunity to die with as much dignity as possible in such an inherently undignified process.
I will conclude by emphasizing the crucial difference between the two main approaches: between living with belief in the supernatural or living without it. Our relation to the world changes profoundly whether or not we think there is anything 'behind' the natural world as we discover it with our reason and our senses. It colors our idea of the good life for human beings, how we think a fully human life ought to be conceived and lived. This is a profound choice that everyone makes in the heart of her or his own being, and it is an unavoidable choice to make once we become aware of the alternatives.
Meditation 82: The Longing for Immortality
Why is the wish for immortality so strong in human beings? As far back as we can see, there are images of a life beyond the grave or funeral pyre. Some are pleasant images; others not so pleasant. For example, the ancient Egyptians believed that, with the proper rituals, the soul of the dead person would attain the Western Paradise after overcoming many obstacles and dangers with the aid of magical charms and incantations.
In ancient Greece, on the other hand, the idea of going to Hades was not a prospect to be eagerly awaited. The souls there are merely shades who glide around gibbering to each other, having lost the power of rational speech. Achilles, the great hero, says he would rather be a slave on earth than a king in Hades. The best place in Hades is Elysium, but only the few best souls go there. The worst are thrown into Tartarus, an unpleasant place impossible to escape.
With the Christian view, matters are even starker. If we live a righteous life, or are chosen by God, we shall go to Heaven and join the Heavenly Choir. If we do not live rightly, or are not chosen by God, then we are doomed to perdition. Our souls will rush to eternal torment.
Others imagine that the afterlife is really ‘another’ life, set in the future, starring you again, through the transmigration of your soul from one body to another according to the law of Karma. According to this law, the life one lives now affects the quality of the next life. Your punishment or reward will catch up with you in an embodied life like the one you are living now.
The only alternative to the afterlife or ‘another’ life is no future life at all, and yet this has hardly been explored. Socrates does mention the possibility, only to say that we ought not worry about death if it is simple extinction, but that, if there is an afterlife, it would be better to have lived a good life than an evil one, for perhaps there are torments awaiting evil doers who manage to escape punishment in this life.
These examples show that most humans do want to live forever in some form or other, even if that means they have to suffer eternally in order to achieve it. They also show the uses of afterlife stories to frighten us into behaving well and becoming good (moral) persons. No matter, there is this deep longing for immortality in some form or other, and I am still puzzled as to why. Does no one think that carrying on through all eternity might pall a bit and that boredom or pain may become our dominant existential categories? Have we thoroughly explored what this longing really means, or have we simply assumed the positive value of immortality without critically examining its nature and desirability?
The question of the existence or non-existence of an immortal soul is a practical metaphysical question. We cannot know the answer, but we have to take a stand. How we answer it says something about our ultimate values, our conception of the good life for human beings, the art of living well and the meaning of death.
Meditation 83: Sexual Economy
The manipulation, dissemination and channeling of sexual energy have always been a major preoccupation of societies ancient and modern. The biology of sexual reproduction has remained the same over the millennia, but a variety of gender constructions and sexual interests have evolved in and through different cultures. They are the constructions of interests that often have little to do with sexual procreation itself, and much more to do with power, pleasure and vanity. In the West, mechanisms of sexual control and patterns of sexual behavior have evolved in the tradition of patriarchal power.
For the longest time, women were used as signs of social value, exchanged as tokens of alliance or taken as chattel. Their value was determined by their family, work abilities, sex appeal and breeding potential. Whatever the power of women at home, her life hinged on acquiring the protection of a powerful man. Some cultures were easier on women than others. In ancient Egypt, a woman had all the legal rights of men, though she was nominally subservient to her husband. With the Hittites and the Greeks, things were different. It all depended on the leeway men gave to their women.
In pagan times, there was, in general, little Puritanism about the satisfaction of physical appetites. Sexual pleasures were no more shameful than those of eating and drinking. There were, indeed, sexual deeds and pleasures that brought shame, but only because people disobeyed social codes, not because there was anything wrong with sexual pleasure. Males and females found work in the sex trade. The rich bought hand-made pornography. Craftspeople and go-betweens made money selling sexual products and services. In the Roman world, all this was out in the open, and their sexual mores scandalized the early Christians. The Romans accepted sexual pleasure for its own sake, as one of the good things about being alive and having a serviceable body.
Under the disapproving eye of religious authorities, the screws were applied to human sexual behavior and feeling. However, the repressed always returns, and the arrival of the industrial revolution brought the means to represent and propagate images of sex that fed into the beginnings of consumer society. A string of inventions made the marketing of sex possible and desirable. First, printing arrived, and then lithography, photography, magazines, film and TV followed. Now we have computers, the internet, I-pods, remote genital agitators, lubricating creams, flavored condoms, and who knows what else.
Sex sells every which way. Society channels sexual energies into approved and unapproved streams. Both are profit centers. Sex as procreation leads to marriage, children, shopping for houses and everything else a family needs. Marriage is safe and approved. Sex as recreation is also 'reluctantly' allowed, within the privacy of the home between consenting adults. However, we learn to be afraid of unprotected sex. Medical industries provide drugs to combat STDs, especially AIDS, and publish books about how to stay healthy. We have a whole drug industry providing erections to middle aged men. All this is good for the bottom line, but there is still something more to be made from the transgressive side of sexual energy. While officially existing in monogamous marriage, sexual energy finds and is found other outlets for its never satiated quest for novelty.
In this respect, selling sex is like selling drugs. It is not respectable, but the prohibition does not stop the trade. Sex is addictive. The market economy thrives on the addiction people have to fantasies that call for ever expanding and repeated gratification. Get them hooked, and they will keep coming back. This is a good example of how the market system, combined with a stark profit motive, insinuates its offerings into all corners of the consumers’ fantasy world, as well as helping to create that very world.
Pornography is emblematic of the sexual economy. Cheap to produce, deskilled, and exploitative, the porn industry has low overheads due to the digital technologies that have increased access to cheaply produced images. The desires that are aroused are designed to remain unsatisfied. It is meant to be a fantasy world where consumers fill in the images on the digital interface with their own narratives. The market for sexual fantasies expands with every bright idea that comes up. It is segmented into discrete areas of interest that reveal themselves because people are willing to pay for the interface. If you think that there might be a niche market for videos of snails copulating, put it out on the web and see if anyone buys a subscription. In many ways, this industry is like a true free market in miniature, the unhampered reign of supply and demand without regard to either aesthetics or ethics, but with a canny sense of where profits are to be made.
Meditation 84: Skeptic Freedom
The weight of belief is heavier than most of us know. Belief chains us to patterns of thought and behavior. Despite lacking knowledge, we cling to our beliefs in the attempt to give stability and security to our inner lives. I am not talking about believing where you parked your car, what you mother’s name is, or the existence of global warming. For all these things we have common or scientific ways of coming to a reasonable set of beliefs. In some matters it is hard to know how one could be wrong, for example, in believing that 2+2=4, that my name is Jeff Mason, or that humans live on the planet earth. In other cases, our beliefs are not so certain. To hold the former with conviction is reasonable, and the latter with a lesser degree of certainty. After that, there are many other things about which our beliefs are less and less certain.
One of the main features of our beliefs is that they aim at the truth, and we hold our beliefs to express true opinions. As pointed out long ago, it would be very odd to say that one believes something, but not that it is true. So belief implicates truth, without necessarily grasping it in particular cases. What beliefs do, however, is to stick the mind to ideas as if they were true, and in such a way as to render them inert. Questioning things takes mental effort and discombobulates people who simply want to get on with their lives without thinking too much. Indeed, if our minds were not so fastened to a set of stable beliefs, it would be hard to navigate the world. We might end up like the great ancient skeptic Pyrrho, who, it is said, avoided cliffs and charging chariots only through the offices of his not-so-skeptical disciples.
Beliefs, then, are ideas about what is considered true that remain relatively stable through time and provide a compass for our lives. We act on our beliefs just as surely as knowledge. Subjectively there is very little difference between them, but, of course, it remains true that beliefs might not turn out to be true. Nevertheless, we often forgot this, and confuse belief with knowledge. People act on their beliefs as if they were certainly true, and indeed, as if believing something strongly enough makes it true.
The sources of belief are multiple, and not all of them are terribly respectable. We are in the dependent position of coming into the world as babies, waiting to be impressed by the sights, sounds, and, most importantly, by the people who guide and protect us. Not being born with beliefs, but with a capacity, and even a necessity to form them, we unquestioningly accept what others tell us. As little children, we trust our elders because we have no choice. We are praised or punished for our behavior according to the beliefs of the very local culture into which, and out of which, we emerge.
So what has this to do with skepticism and freedom? Skepticism, as we know, has a bad reputation in many quarters. Habits of questioning cause discomfort in those who have set opinions. Their attitude is one of “I know what I believe, and I will stick to that no matter what.” Furthermore, to such people, the skeptic appears as a threat to settled patterns of thought, action and attitude. More to the point, skepticism allows and even demands the questioning of all authorities, and authorities do not like such questioning. If everyone started making up their own minds about everything, it is not clear how any authority could maintain the uniformity of thought that it desires.
My view is that the many beliefs that people hold without questioning are so many shackles of the mind. Our beliefs hold us captive, and we do not even know it. This is why the cultivation of a skeptical attitude is so important for the advance of freedom in the world. The skeptic mind is a free mind. I am not speaking of radical skepticism about the unreality of the world, our bodies, or even the truths of mathematics. These ‘doubts’ are a strategic maneuver designed to sharpen a theory of knowledge. Reasonable skepticism concerns the opinions people hold with a strength that is not warranted by the evidence.
One of the main obstacles to freeing the mind from its shackles of belief is the desire for certainty. Give up this desire and it is possible to explore the universe with an open mind. This is particularly true with religious and political beliefs that are more a matter of sheer conviction than fact. Belief is a choice, and a choice that rules out alternative views and ways of thinking. Possessing too many beliefs prevents people from thinking outside the box, and it is just this sort of thinking that skepticism encourages. No wonder, then, that Dante, who was working with the closed mind of the Middle Ages, provides skeptics with their own special place in Hell.
However, when one gives up the desire for certainty and opens the mind to questioning and inquiry, then one feels the exhilaration described by J.L.Austin when he spoke of the thrill we experience feeling the firm ground of prejudice slipping away beneath our feet. Skeptic freedom is a freedom of the mind to explore an open-ended and inexhaustible universe without prejudice and blinkers. It may not always be comfortable, and it may not always bring happiness, but, then, neither does the straight jacket of belief.
Meditation 85: Philosophy and the Good life
The question of the good life, I imagine, was simple in the days before cities. It was having enough to eat, a place to sleep, clothing, tools, family and a tribal affiliation. So the good life was one of freedom from want and hardship. However, once the necessaries were provided, human beings wanted more out of life. Theories arose about how life ought to be lived.
Those who had the time and inclination to think more deeply about the good life for human beings were, first, the religious poets and prophets, and, then, the philosophers. Religion taught people to live a good life as defined by a religious teaching. Religion, as it were, does the thinking for the people who do not have time to think things through for themselves. Philosophy, however, asks people to think for themselves, to question doubtful premises and assumptions using reason, logic, and experience to provide the best arguments for their own position, while being able to put forward objections to rival arguments, and to answer objections to their own.
Every familiar religion embodies a code of conduct, notions of purity and impurity, moral standards, and a strong link with something considered Divine. In some forms of Christianity, for example, the good life is one that is lived in loving obedience to God’s commands and in the belief that Jesus is the personal savior of humankind. This is a life of self-renunciation, service to others and asceticism. We know of it because of Divine revelation. We accept it on faith as a dogma of the religion. Other religions have other dogmas.
The philosophers I respect proceed non-dogmatically. They want us to examine the views that have been advanced, compare them, and then decide which conclusion is supported by the best argument. Looking around, the early philosophers saw that people pursue different things in life depending upon their desires. Some pursue pleasure, others wealth, fame, or power over others. It is the same today.
It turns out, upon philosophical reflection, that the satisfaction of these desires does not, in the end, make people happy. Those who pursue pleasure become jaded. The wealthy become habituated to their luxurious lifestyle. Fame palls and one is forced to live in the gaze of others. The quest for power breeds fear and suspicion in the powerful and in their subordinates.
Finally, there are some people who appear to pursue truth and wisdom rather than pleasure, riches, fame or power. These, of course, are the philosophers. To be honest, when philosophers talk about the good life, they stack the deck in their own favor. Whenever they discuss it, the good life is the philosophical life. This does not mean that they are wrong, but we should be cautious how we receive their arguments. There is no such thing as the good life for everyone, and neither philosophers nor religious expositors have any right to lay down the law about it.
Finally, there are some people who appear to pursue truth and wisdom rather than pleasure, riches, fame or power. These, of course, are the philosophers. To be honest, when philosophers talk about the good life, they stack the deck in their own favor. Whenever they discuss it, the good life is the philosophical life. This does not mean that they are wrong, but we should be cautious how we receive their arguments. There is no such thing as the good life for everyone, and neither philosophers nor religious expositors have any right to lay down the law about it.
Nevertheless, with this caveat, there are a number of things that the philosophical life has to recommend it. As Aristotle tells us, it begins in wonder at the universe and the spectacle of life. It proceeds through the cultivation of learning and reason, through the dialectical give and take of discussion, through awareness of varying points of view, and through understanding the pertinent questions to ask. Philosophers use conversation as a means of investigating reality. It is an integral part of the philosophical life. The Socratic method of questioning is a perfect example. In fact, Socrates embodies a certain take on the philosophical life. It is one that includes having a good memory for what people say, inexhaustible curiosity, and a desire to get to the bottom of things. Another key element is Socratic ignorance. A keen sense of how little we know is a valued asset in the philosophical life, as is a skeptical attitude toward all dogmatic religious or philosophical speculations. Finally, the philosopher requires a kind of courage to pursue arguments to their conclusions, whether those conclusions are welcomed or not.
As to the way philosophers should live, Aristotle puts it well in his Golden Mean: All things in moderation; nothing to excess. And we may add: Eat right, exercise and acquire habits of feeling, thought and action that lead to moral and intellectual excellence. The good life is a life devoted to the discovery and communication of truth within a community of like-minded people possessing moral integrity and a genuine desire to learn.
Philosophers have been discussing the nature and possibility of happiness for as long as philosophy has existed. From Socrates on down, there have been many attempts to provide an understanding of the nature of happiness and the ways that individuals might attain it. Later, a more social theory of happiness emerged stressing the role education and knowledge play in creating a world free of superstition in which everyone has a chance to develop their capacities in a society that encourages self-development and the happiness of all. This movement culminated in the ethical theory of Utilitarianism, which self-consciously aims at promoting the happiness and well-being of the greatest number of people. The question before us now is whether there might not be a science of happiness in light of which we can collectively aim to create a better world in which increasing numbers of people have a chance to live happy and flourishing lives.
The idea that societies ought to be arranged in such a way as to maximize happiness in the population led to a number of progressive measures to benefit both individuals and society. In large part, we have this idea to thank for the development of wash houses, sewer systems, public hospitals, parks, museums and so on. In the English countryside there are countless plaques commemorating the deeds of philanthropists who improved their towns and cities. More recently, this impulse seems to have waned. However, with the help of neurophysiology, psychology and economics, we may be able now to put together a science of happiness that can motivate social change through a revitalized utilitarian philosophy for the 21st Century.
The desire to make utilitarianism scientific is there from the beginning, but the means to accomplish it was lacking. The founder of Utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, proposed a Hedonic Calculus to measure the amount of pleasure people experience in units of ‘Hedons.’ The Calculus was to give us a proper scientific measure of pleasure, and thus happiness. For Bentham, a happy life is one in which the pleasures of life outweigh the inevitable pains. If all pleasures are equal, as they are for Bentham, and we can quantify pleasures, and we understand happiness in terms of pleasure, then we seem to be approaching a ‘science’ of happiness.
The problem with all this, of course, is that the ‘Hedonic’ calculus is not a scientific measure. Pleasures are not quantified as easily as Bentham supposed, for they are, after all, only the satisfactions of desires, and there are many sorts of desires. Some desires are simple and others are complex. Some carry intellectual and moral freight; others do not. Their satisfaction is not easily measurable along a scale of individual experiences of pleasure and pain. There seems to be an inescapably social dimension to our happiness that is not reflected directly in our immediate experiences, but rather forms the background conditions for the existence of happier societies.
The project is to clarify collective human goals that will advance the cause of human well being, led by ideas of happiness that we discover from what people tell us about what makes them happy or miserable. There is no a priori access to the nature of happiness. A science of happiness must be empirical. If we can find out what makes people happy by asking them, then we can use our reason to contrive the most viable means to attain the desired end.
Happiness involves physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. There are a number of factors involved and they do not all reduce to sensations of pleasure or pain. For example, feeling physically safe, financially secure, healthy, and well educated positively affects our happiness. Underpinning this sense of well being are the existence of a good education system, access to medical services, and a decent social safety net in time of need.
For the development of the mind, education is a top priority for promoting happiness. For emotional well being we need solid and supportive relations with others, family, friends, community; and very importantly for most people, a close loving partnership with a special person. For a sense of spiritual well being, freedom of religious belief and worship is very important to the self-described happiness of billions of people.
More than this, our chances for happiness increase when we feel that we live in societies with human, civil and political rights. Similarly, we tend to be happier when we live with the freedom to plot the course of our own lives without too much outside interference. Furthermore, we are happier when we feel that human beings are mainly good and trustworthy, and we feel better about life if we do not think that our government or business community is corrupt. On discovering that they are, our level of happiness declines.
The picture we are left with is filled out with the help of the aforementioned disciplines. From philosophy we get a reinvigorated utilitarian social project. From the exciting new field of neuroscience we are learning about the chemistry of pleasure and anxiety. From psychology we get an enhanced understanding of the components of human happiness. And finally, we gain an economic theory that moves beyond the ‘Invisible Hand’ and the abstract conception of human beings as rational self-interested units. We understand now that the Gross National Product is not the final measure of human happiness and well being, and that the social costs of production and consumption must be factored into the productive processes themselves. So perhaps now, with the addition of these other disciplines, we can redefine our social goals, agree to strive for them, and together forge a new consensus on how move forward with the new science of happiness to guide us.
Meditation 87: Death and the Art of Living
As one gets older, it is harder to ignore the inevitable approach of death. The young, if they are lucky, live as though there were no tomorrow. The days seem to stretch out before them in an endless line. Of course, no one is too young to die. Accidents, wars, famine and disease carry off many individuals before they feel the approach of old age and decrepitude. Still, to an older person, it appears that the young live as though life will never end. They often seem to be wasting their time, idling through their days without a care for the future. Older people are partly envious of the young, but they also recognize that, for them, there is no time to waste.
The phenomenology of aging and death is the unfolding of time in a person’s life. When we are very young, tomorrow is what matters, or perhaps the day after that. One cannot wait for one’s birthday, for graduation into the wide world, for love and romance, making a living, having a family, and attaining respect as an adult in an adult’s world. Thoughts of the end rarely intrude, unless, perhaps, some religious teaching reminds one of it. Indeed, it is in religion that death takes a starring role, reminding the faithful of their common lot, and perhaps of a world beyond this one in which death shall be no more. Still, for a young person, even a reminder of death, like a skull, is more likely to be a paperweight or a scary curiosity than a catalyst for serious thoughts about death.
So as time unfolds, the trail of the past gets longer and longer, while the future gets shorter and shorter. In the blink of an eye, the time comes to look back on one’s life and ask what it all meant. For philosophers, and those who are philosophically minded, this question cannot be avoided by embracing a dogmatic creed that tells us in advance the meaning of human life. Thinking about death and the art of living will help us with the question of what life means after it has been lived.
Every person has a choice to make in the manner in which he or she lives toward death, though no choice in living toward that end. One choice is to ignore death as long as possible, pretending that life will go on and on. Another choice is to see only the black dog of death, robbing us of all the transitory pleasures of life and the joys of the day. Choosing this, the prospect of death robs life of its very meaning. But while one worries about death, life slips by unlived.
There is living, and then there is living well. The art of living is about living well, steering a course somewhere between ignoring death and obsessing about it. The fact is that though we will most probably experience dying, we will never experience death itself. Whatever death is or is not, we always approach but never reach it. This fact must be faced if we are to acquire the art of living well. All we will ever know is life, and with this realization comes the awareness that the present moment is all we presently have. The past is gone and the future never arrives except as a later present. So the art of living takes death on board, but does not allow the thought of it to sour the moment.
At the same time, awareness of death as the horizon of life ought not to be forgotten, since this thought gives relish to life. In fact, it may be that the prospect of living endlessly on and on is more effective in robbing life of meaning and joy than the thought of personal extinction. The art of living involves seeing death as an impetus to life, to living each moment in its fullness. This is why, I believe, Spinoza said that there is nothing the wise person thinks of so little as death. He is not telling us to live in ignorance of death, but rather to see that it is our lives we must cherish and celebrate, for that is all we will ever have.
Meditation 88: Making Time for the Present
In discussions of what makes for a good or happy life, we are often advised to "Live in the present." It is hard to know what to make of this advice. At what other time might we live our lives but in the present? What kind of advice is it to ask us to do something we are incapable of failing to do? And yet, we hear of the power of the now and how meditation practice can provide us with the key to living in the present. We are told that countless people are more miserable than they might otherwise be because they do not or can not live more fully in the present.
So we have to figure out what 'not living the present' might be like, given that we are always already living in the present. I got a clue lying in bed the other night, unable to fall asleep. Observing what was going through my mind at the time, I noticed that it was very active. I was thinking about things. What sort of things was I so busy thinking about that I could not sleep? Most of them were about the past, and almost all the rest were about the future. For example, I might start thinking of my parents and how they died, and ask if there was anything more I could have done for them. There are many occasions in the past that call forth sadness, regret, guilt, anger or hate, when we think of them. There are many more that call up joy, mirth and gladness.
Looking toward the future I found myself thinking about how to design an introductory philosophy course syllabus that conforms to the complex conditions attaching to General Education courses in my University, complete with detailed outlines, and explicit connections to the 'Learning Outcomes' mandated by bureaucratic committees and external authorities. I may not have to complete the syllabus for a month or so, but still it preys on my mind. So my thinking takes on the aspect of practical reason in which I work back from the desired end to what I can do now. Of course, in the middle of the night, there is nothing I can do, yet I gnaw away at it, and this robs me of a peaceful sleep.
Is thinking about the past and future compatible with ‘living in the present?’ Perhaps not, since ‘living in the present’ indicates a presence of mind to the passing moment, and a mindfulness of what is around and within us. If one tries to think about the present, then one has already distanced oneself from it. It becomes the abstraction of the so-called 'specious present.' To be called back to the now, I realized, is really to come back to your body without distracting thoughts about the past and future. Now I understand why the elemental training in meditation is simply to breathe in and out, aware of the process, not in the sense of thinking about it, but in the sense of just breathing. This is hard to do. Thoughts intrude, and most, if not all of them, are of the past or future. So when that happens, we are to return our awareness gently to our breathing, breathing naturally the whole time. It is when you return to your breathing that you begin to see how the past and future haunt the present in the form of thoughts that take us away from the moment we are living. Hence, we can make sense of the idea that we must make time for the present in our lives. Anchoring ourselves to our living bodies is one way to live in the moment.
We can cultivate this awareness of the present by setting aside some minutes to inhabit our own bodies in a conscious way, for our bodies are always in the present and have no other time in which to be.
Meditation 89: Skeptic “Ataraxia”
We like the feeling of certainty. It gives us confidence and a sense of safety. Mathematics, geometry and logic give us a taste of certainty. We get another taste from the well tested results of scientific investigation. However, the world as we experience it is full of probability, chance, uncertainty and mystery. We are surrounded by what is doubtful, and this makes us anxious.
The goal of ancient skepticism is to produce a state of ‘ataraxia’ or ‘freedom of mind’ in the souls of its practitioners. It is not about eliminating doubt, but eliminating the cause of the mental distress people experience when doubts assail their minds. This cause contains a desire for the certainty of knowledge coupled with a belief that such knowledge is possible. A practical skeptic accepts the inherent uncertainty of most of our opinions and ceases to imagine that beneath the turbulent surface of experiences and events, reason, science or a mystical/religious vision can reveal an unchanging Reality or Absolute Truth.
How do we benefit by accepting a basic human ignorance? The reason is pragmatic. We benefit by releasing debilitating mental agitation. What, then, is the connection between the skeptic’s ‘ataraxia’ and ‘freedom of mind’? I must confess here that I have taken some liberties by translating ‘ataraxia’ as ‘freedom of mind.’ It literally means ‘painlessness’. The skeptic notices that people have a tendency to entertain ideas that bring them painful feelings, and that doubts are often among these ideas. The goal of a skeptic is to ‘suspend’ belief on doubtful matters that cause mental distress. These doubtful matters cause distress because they cannot be settled rationally.
Another way to translate ‘ataraxia’ is ‘peace of mind.’ The painless existence advocated by the skeptics for practical reasons does not extend to all pains, and certainly not physical pains directly experienced as distressing. I do not wonder if my tooth hurts and try to build up a convincing case that it does. I do not ask myself whether the pain is bad in itself, even if the pain is occasioned in a good cause, like dental health. So the skeptic’s painlessness has more to do with mental than with physical pains, and not even with all mental pains and pleasures. I expect that an ancient skeptic would be sad if a friend died, or elated on winning the lottery. This cannot be the sort of peace of mind involved in skeptic ‘ataraxia.’
The skeptic is trying to relieve us of distressing thoughts that disturb our peace of mind. What sort of ‘peace of mind’ are we talking about? Let’s call it ‘intellectual peace of mind’. The ancient skeptic is trying to relieve us of a particular type of mental pain. This pain is caused by the type of interminable intellectual debates so beloved by serious philosophers. One is so anxious not to miss the truth that the quest for the truth itself breaks up one’s peace of mind in a continual striving after what, in the end, is more a matter of conviction than a matter of proof.
Where knowledge is unavailable, we can only make a choice. The skeptic chooses not to choose in cases where there are no clear conclusions and opposing positions continue to be asserted even while everyone knows they cannot all be true. On my account, this turns skeptical peace of mind into freedom of mind. What is freedom of mind? It is the ability to think any thought that it is possible to think, without limits, without taboos, without constrictions. Not taking a final stand on the philosophical debates mentioned above, the skeptic is free to follow all lines of argument in a playful fashion. Taken in the right spirit, philosophical discussions are fun, insightful and thrilling, since it is a thrill to follow surprising ideas wherever they may lead. Good philosophical discussion is a genuine form of investigation. However, when the spirit of seriousness enters a philosophical discussion, the going gets competitive and philosophy becomes a game of refuting and temporarily silencing one’s opponents.
One of the best things that Hegel ever said was ‘Tarry with the negative.’ By the ‘negative’ he meant one-sided and false theories. Yet the ‘negative’ is never entirely false, and thus inhabiting such a position is a worthwhile exercise, even if, eventually, it would cramp one’s style. It is easier for a skeptic to tarry with the negative than a believer in truth and knowledge, since knowledge is the end of thinking and questioning. Skeptics are free to explore the world of thought in a way that those who are bound by knowledge and the search for knowledge are not.
Thus the ataraxia sought by the ancient skeptic is the painlessness that comes from rightly understanding the nature of philosophical (or theological) argument. This peace of mind is really a type of mental freedom. It is a peace that comes from finding no walls surrounding one’s thoughts; a peace that comes from the realization that we can try on the possibilities of the human spirit without conforming to the dominant shapes of the day.
Meditation 90: Happiness and the Good Life
What is the relation between living a good life and being happy? To many, the good life is a financially prosperous life, and happiness lies in the possession of wealth. Worldly success is what counts, and anyone who is not ‘successful’ in the usual sense is counted a ‘failure.’ Others strive for a life based on honor and public recognition. A good life is made up of hobnobbing with the right people in the right settings, and happiness is a matter of gaining respect. Along with these, there are lives that show by their living a desire for glory or power that inspires great efforts. Others, who are not drawn to wealth, power or glory because of the difficulties involved in attaining them, may choose the pursuit of pleasure. A good and happy life is one in which pleasures outweigh the pains overall. Many questions have been asked about the good life and happiness. People constantly answer those questions with their lives, and we see many different ideas of the good life and happiness playing out in the strivings of human beings to live well and be happy.
The ancient Greeks wished their friends to ‘do well’ and ‘fare well’ in this life. These two, they thought, held the keys to human felicity. Doing well concerns ourselves, our own actions and feelings. We have some control over these aspects of our lives. So when we wish someone to 'do well' in life, we express the hope that the person will be moral and fair in his or her dealings with others. Beyond securing basic physical survival, someone who does well in life can sleep with a clear conscience, whether blessed with material success or not. From many a philosophical point of view, the good life has an intrinsically moral core that involves compassion for the suffering of others and acting justly in the world.
‘Faring well’ concerns events and occurrences over which we do not have so much control. "Faring well" means succeeding in life, coming into a prosperous condition, with all the benefits that come with money and social acceptance. Someone who is faring well in life has had a bit of good luck. It is possible to do everything right in order to succeed, but still fail to do so. For example, you can study hard for your degree, get your professional qualifications, work diligently, become competent, but still not succeed. The cards may not fall your way. As Sartre says, "You are free to try, but not to succeed." This seems right to me, and so I will come down with Aristotle against Plato on this point, that doing well is not all that is involved in attaining happiness in life.
Plato's Socrates famously says that the good person cannot be harmed, that virtue is knowledge, and that happiness consists entirely of doing well and being just. Aristotle argues that a degree of luck plays into our happiness. He insists that most of our happiness is in our own hands, but that it can be affected by outside circumstances. So while being happy is mostly a matter of 'doing well' (and ‘thinking well’), great misfortunes can damage our happiness. It may be that such a person, by 'doing well,' will attain a degree of dignity in suffering, but he will not be happy; or, as Aristotle has it, 'blessed.'
In light of this result, I hazard an intuitive philosophical account of the relation between the good life and happiness. Living a good life is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for happiness. In other words, it is possible to live a good life without being happy, but not happy without living a good life. This a 'philosophical' account of the relation because many philosophers have a particular idea of happiness and the good life that is not shared by everyone, with their emphasis on clarity of thought and sound reasoning. In addition, though philosophers recommend the philosophical life as both the happiest and the best, they are not in a position to legislate for everyone what happiness must be. Nevertheless, the traditional philosophical view is not without support. All we have to do is look at the results of many lives that strive for wealth, power, fame, glory or pleasure. So many disasters befall those who pursue a good life with no moral core, or reflective turn of mind, that it makes some sense, as philosophers argue, to pursue the wisdom to recognize the good life, and, within that life, such happiness human beings can attain.
Meditation 91: Is Epicurus Right About Sex?
Epicurus is very clear that the desire for sex is generally bad for one’s peace of mind. When we imagine Epicurus doing what he likes best, he is swinging in a hammock in his garden talking philosophy with his friends. The frenzy of love making and its aftermath disrupts the calm and stately demeanor that comes with living a simple life, satisfying only one’s basic desires. His motto is “Plain living, high thinking.”
Epicurus is very clear about this. Desires are natural or vain, necessary or unnecessary. Pursuing vain desires, like extreme wealth, pleasure or fame, is difficult, fretful and uncertain. None of the vain desires are necessary, and we never find rest if we pursue them. The necessary desires are for food, shelter, clothing, water and air. With these the individual can maintain life. Our happiness lies in cultivating a taste for the basics.
There is one desire, however, that Epicurus singles out for special attention, the desire for sexual pleasure. Like the vain desires, the desire for sex is unnecessary for the survival of the individual, yet it is perfectly natural, like thirst or hunger. We are built for sexual reproduction, and a maturing human animal will feel the stirring of sexual desire no matter what. We are hardwired to find sexual attractions in the world.
As well as being natural, the desire for sex is necessary for the survival of the human race. However, what is true of the species need not be true of every individual member. If everyone were to take the advice of Epicurus, we would die out in a generation. I suppose it is because of this that he sees sexual desire as natural. Nevertheless, whatever fools the rest of us make of ourselves, Epicurus thinks that it is not a good idea for a wise person to pursue sexual relationships or to be entangled in them.
A good analogy may be today’s economic paradox. Just as it is in the interest of each individual to get out of debt, live within a budget, and save some money for a rainy day, it is in the interest of consumer society that individuals spend beyond their means. As Bernard Mandeville puts it, in his commentary to The Fable of the Bees, called “Private Vices, Public Benefits,” the economy grows if people go into debt to buy things they do not really need, but it benefits the individual to remain debt free. So it is with sex and Epicurus. Humans must breed to keep the species going, but wise individuals refrain from doing so.
So what does Epicurus have against sex? First off, his objection is not against pleasure per se. In fact, Epicurus judges the good and bad as what leads to pleasure or pain. Also, he does not deny that sexual pleasure is the most intense physical pleasure that there is. But, for him, that is a large part of the problem. Sexual pleasure is too intense. It disturbs our mind. Think of the innumerable love songs about the craziness and blindness of love. We are carried away and lose our ability to reason things out realistically. The lover is outside the beloved’s window in the dead of night singing songs of longing. Look at all the fools for love and what happens to them: disaster after disaster.
What if one’s mighty love is unrequited? Oh, the agonies, weight loss, depression, bitter sweet memories when they are playing your tune. Then, suppose you are successful. You have a love and your love has you. Now you need each other, or are stuck with each other, engaged in working and child rearing. All of this bonding brings anxiety, concerns, hopes, fears, frustrations, pains and agitations of mind.
From all this bother, Epicurus sees an easy way out. Cultivate friends, not lovers, and you will not experience the possessiveness or jealousy, the hate or anger of frustrated love .You do not need your friends to be a certain way, and will accept them as they are. Friends are happy to see each other, become totally engaged with each other while they are together, and then say good-bye and go their separate ways without pulling romantic heartstrings. Sexual relations get one into trouble of mind, and this is precisely what Epicurus wants to teach us to avoid.
So is he right? I suppose that will depend upon whether or not one shares Epicurus’ view of what will make us happy in this life. If you think that peace of mind is the final desideratum and the essence of happiness, then it is true that one’s life runs more smoothly with fewer hostages to fortune, without erotic and then familial entanglements. If the avoidance of all suffering is the goal of life, then avoiding sexual relationships might provide some relief. However, if one deems it a richer life to have loving and erotic relations with others, and if one accepts the agitation that comes with them, then perhaps the advice of Epicurus is too bloodless.
Meditation 92 The Eighth Deadly Sin: Fastidiousness
Everyone knows about the seven deadly sins. The dire consequences that can result from them are well documented. Each is sufficient to send a soul to Hell for all eternity, and all lead to corruption and death. However, there is another sin that goes unnoticed in comparison with the Big Seven. I call it the sin of fastidiousness. The very root of the word brings out its disagreeable qualities. “Fastidiousness” derives from the Latin and Middle English for “disgust,” “arrogance,” “tedium” and “scorn.”
Putting together various definitions of the term, we have the following noteworthy features:
A fastidious person tends to be
Having high and often capricious standards
Difficult to please / quick to find fault / exacting
Excessively demanding / fussy / particular /delicate / scrupulous
Excessively sensitive with respect to taste, propriety or clothing style
Excessively concerned with cleanliness or tidiness
Having complex nutritional requirements (This comes from biology, but it could equally well apply to a certain kind of fastidious person.)
Like all sins, there is something excessive about being too fastidious about things. It is true that there are times and situations where we want meticulous people to take pains over every little detail of their work. We want fastidious surgeons who are concerned with cleanliness, and pilots who pay attention to flight routines and check lists. But as a sin, fastidiousness is a kind of excess of care or scrupulosity.
It is a shame to see people complaining of never being able to do anything or go anywhere because they have to clean the house or walk the dog. The house can wait, and dogs do not require servants. Another example is the person so concerned about germs that it becomes impossible to travel anywhere. “I would love to go, but there are too many germs” expresses a fastidiousness that gets in the way of living a full life. While keeping in mind that some prudence in life is necessary, it is a sin to see people thwart themselves because of imagined rules and complex personal rituals.
I remember my son loving the beach in California when he was little, but how he did not want to go there when he was older because there was ‘too much sand’ on the beach and it ‘got between one’s toes.’ How disgusting! However, if you are going to let a little thing like sand between your toes stop you from going to the beach, how much more impoverished is your life than if you were not prevented from doing so by purely imaginary blocks. The main problem with fastidiousness is that it puts the brakes on life.
The last years of Howard Hughes’ life provide an extreme example of this trait. His stellar career in aeronautics degenerated into hypochondria. He ended up living on the top floor of a Las Vegas hotel avoiding all possible contact with germs. He never left his room. In cases like this, fastidiousness merges with obsessive-compulsive syndrome. Of course, not all fastidious persons are so extreme, but the trait does circumscribe a person’s life. It is not wise to let one’s ad hoc personal preferences prevent the taking up of new pursuits and activities.
What is at the root of fastidiousness? I conjecture that fear lies behind it, the fear of change, and ultimately of death. Howard Hughes tried to cheat death by living a germ free life; but, of course, he died anyway. Perhaps it is the same impulse that leads to complex religious rules of living. The Romans were known to be extremely scrupulous about the observance of the traditional sacrifices. They would not act without taking the ‘omens’. To fail to do so involves pollution. So perhaps fastidiousness is also connected with notions of ‘purity.’ To break the rules, to let the sand run between your toes, feels like contacting some sort of ritual impurity.
Fastidiousness is experienced as ‘the way that things must be’. Fastidious persons have no idea that this trait hampers and circumscribes the flow and development of their lives. It prevents them from doing all sorts of things that might enrich them. For example, by making cleanliness the touch stone of choice, valuable experiences will tend to be considered off limits. Take wilderness camping. If one finds disgusting the idea of performing natural bodily functions in the bushes or behind trees, then it will be much more difficult to experience the sublimity of nature and the joys of true solitude.
In conclusion, it is only fair to point out that the sin of fastidiousness is not, in most cases, a moral sin. I doubt that anyone goes to hell for being fastidious. It is, rather, a sin whose punishment does not have to wait until the next life. The punishment is to live a cramped and narrow life, from which the fullness and range of human experience is excluded for no good reason. That is the sin of fastidiousness.
Meditation 93 Macrocosm - Microcosm
Since Plato, and even before, it struck the imagination of humans that there exists a useful analogy between the macrocosm and the microcosm. The macrocosm is “The Great Universe.” It is an ordered cosmos, with perceived regularities and great periods of movement. The ancients saw the stars wheel through the heavens at night, the coming and going of the seasons, the great circle of time. On that great scale all is beautiful and moves in perfect harmony.
The Greeks made a distinction between the Heavens and the world below the moon, or the Sublunary Realm. Beyond the moon all is well. Plato’s Demiurgos, for example, who brought order to original chaos, tried his best to eliminate disorder. He does very well beyond the Moon. Unfortunately for us, the Demiurgos does not have fine grained control of the forces of matter and nature. There is no power that can tame a certain ‘recalcitrance’ in matter. This is why the creatures living on the earth occasionally suffer the shocks of earthquakes, famine, great epidemics, and war. Humans, themselves, are definitely ‘sub-lunary’ creatures, and remain chaotic despite trying, at times, to imitate the great model of the Heavens above them, or the Divine Mind or Power which people believed to lie behind it.
Later in history, but before the existence of modern mathematical science, the macrocosm - microcosm distinction took a large load of moral symbolism. There arose a doctrine of ‘correspondences’ between the macro and the microcosm. The slogan was “As above, so below.” The microcosm of the little world of humans recapitulates or mirrors the greater world of the macrocosm.
A remnant of this way of thinking lingers in the imagery of Shakespeare. King Lear experiences a mighty storm on a blasted heath that mirrors the chaos of his soul. In another play, Caesar ignores the dire omens that preceded his murder. When comets fly, or a bird falls from the sky, they are signs of a correspondence between the great and little worlds. We call this ‘magical thinking’ today, but that does not make it go away. Magical thinking still flourishes in the world, and nothing can stop a person from thinking magically. We used to look at the entrails of sheep to prognosticate the future. Now we try to ‘read’ the stock market, or estimate the invisible risks of investments.
The distinction between the macrocosm and the microcosm has also served an ideological purpose. It helped to establish hierarchical power structures in the world. The Chinese perfected this idea with their distinctions between Heaven and Earth, Emperor and Subject, Father - Son, and so on. The Emperor rules by the Will of the Macrocosm (Heaven), and the Earth prospers when it follows the will of heaven. In the West, too, the distinction had much the same purpose; namely, to bolster the Divine Right of Kings and the idea that everyone has a place a natural hierarchy.
Modern societies build change into the order of things. There is no microcosm or macrocosm because we live in an undivided universe. There is no ‘above,’ no ‘below,’ but only universal forces working out the details of their manifestations in space and time. This may be correct from a scientific point of view, which Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” However, the distinction may still have a use in helping us to explore the problems of ‘perspectival’ thinking, which is the view from somewhere.
Today, the distinction between the macrocosm and microcosm can highlight for us the gap that exists between the world at it is revealed to an individual’s immediate perceptual and cultural registry, and the greater world that always escapes it. How is this, and why is it important?
Grant for the sake of argument that human beings are perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting animals who exist in a perceptually limited field. This limited field is the microcosm. Not only is it bounded by the contours of an animal body, and immediate contact with a particular environment, but also by time itself. This animal body has a beginning, middle, and end in time. Therefore, a person’s animal life is spent in a microcosm. Our bodies provide both the opportunity and necessity of living in this perceptually limited world. There are as many microcosms as there are people on this planet. However, we are also aware of the macrocosm through learning, science and communication. The macrocosm is the universe as it transcends individuals' particular experiences. The different sciences open up fit subjects for study and speculation. The excitement over the new Hadron collider is part of this, as is the amazing elaboration of the human genome. Philosophy, too, can put our necessarily microcosmic lives in a macro-cosmic perspective, giving us a longer and wider view of the universe, one that transcends the short lives and perceptual limitations of individuals.
Considering the macrocosm can thus act as a corrective to our basic myopia. People tend to take whatever is around them as reality, but thoughts of the macrocosm make us realize that our microcosmic reality is transcended on all sides by nature and differences between the histories and cultures of peoples and nations.
For example, living in a comfortable spot by the beach in Southern California, there is no war going on in the vicinity, no famine, and no great social unrest. There is hardship in East Los Angeles, poverty in Santa Ana, homelessness and untreated mental illness on Skid Row, but down by the beach, one would be forgiven for thinking that the world is a beautiful place, full of beautiful people out exercising. Everyone appears so laid back you would think that life is just a pleasant dream. Of course, there are problems, but the police force is beefy, and the streets fairly safe. If a person just lives in the microcosm of a beach town and sees nothing else, hears nothing else, and speaks nothing else, then the microcosm is all there is for that individual.
Thinking about the macrocosm and microcosm is important because it reminds us that how it is where we live is not how it is where someone else lives, even if the other person lives in the same town. Knowledge of the macrocosm draws us out of our little lives to stand in a wider world, feeling awe before the grandeur of nature, the sweep of human history, the growth of science, and the potential to integrate the great and the little into a life that appreciates both and can move from one to the other as the occasion demands.
Meditation 94 Is a Science of Happiness Possible? (Second Try.)
The topic of human happiness or felicity has a long history. From Plato and Aristotle to the cynics, stoics, epicureans and skeptics, there have been no end of philosophical treatises defining happiness and describing different ways of attaining it. Faith, too, speaks of human happiness within the context of a religious tradition. In theistic religions, human happiness is achieved through living a ‘godly’ life here on earth in the hopes of eternal felicity after death. The topic is huge and the angles are many, but, until now, there has been no concerted effort to organize our thoughts about happiness into an empirical science.
Philosophers and theologians can only speculate, the new idea is to bring philosophy into an interdisciplinary arrangement containing both fairly hard and rather softer social scientific theories. Richard Layard, in his book “The New Science of Happiness” brings philosophy, psychology, economics and neurophysiology to bear on the question of human happiness, what it is, and what we can do collectively and individually to promote happiness in the world.
On Layard’s reasonable view, happiness involves both external conditions and the internal attitudes and mental states of individuals. Again, plausibly, we are not to impose on everyone an idea of happiness generated by high-minded philosophers or divine-minded theologians. We are to start with what ordinary people think. What makes this a “science” of happiness is the use of empirical data in calculating what is or is not conducive to happiness or an ingredient in the happy life. This empirical approach uses the results of ‘happiness’ questionnaires. One involves coming up with a ‘well-being’ index, another with a ‘life-satisfaction’ index. People taking the questionnaires subjectively rank their well-being or life-satisfaction.
From these exercises we learn both how happy a person feels at the given time, and what the person thinks are the main ingredients of a happy life. What we do not learn from them, however, is how reflective the subjects of the questionnaires are in making their judgments about what the good life is for them. What people generally think will make them happy are just the sorts of things that philosophers and theologians find far down the list of truly valuable things.
The usual suspects are things like pleasure, wealth, status, fame, glory, power, good looks, fancy possessions, a snazzy car and the right address. Take the ends that matter to you and measure yourself against them. It is only at that point that you can estimate how happy you are. We need the idea of a good we are aiming at before we can know how close or far away we are from attaining it.
The philosophy of choice, for Layard, is Utilitarianism. We are to conceive of a ‘common good’ and work toward that end in a non-coercive fashion. Each person’s happiness is of equal value, so utilitarianism fits a democratic model of government. Within this framework, and armed with the results of thousands of questionnaires, the other sciences plug in and bring their expertise to bear.
The new field of ‘positive psychology’ tries to develop interventions, tools or techniques to raise a person's ‘set point’ of happiness. Each of us has a normal range of happiness, to which we return after our spirits are lifted or lowered by good and bad events. The set point of happiness involves a person's genetic inheritance and background, but also, importantly, the individual's attitude and state of mind. Positive psychology tries to develop strengths rather than fight weaknesses and flaws. It looks at healthy functioning people, rather than unhappy neurotics and psychotics. We discover that diet, exercise and meditation can play a large role in cultivating a calm mind and tranquil spirit.
“Happiness Economics” looks at the external conditions that, as people self-describe them, make happiness a possible project. It may be that everyone ultimately wants to be happy, but that end is a long way off for someone who does not have enough to eat, clothes to wear, or shelter from the elements. This new approach factors into its theory the effects on happiness that different economic arrangements have. Instead of simply looking at the GNP as an index of happiness and well-being of a society, the happiness economists consider wider aspects of the society and people as we find them in life, not the famous “homo economici” of economic theory. As the King of Bhutan put it, we should be looking instead to increase the GHP, the Gross Happiness Product.
Finally, neurophysiology is entering exciting new territory with its sophisticated methods of non-invasive brain scanning. More and more is being learned about the function of different parts of the brain in processing information and what lights up when people describe themselves as feeling a particular emotion or state of mind. It seems clear that the brain is the physical platform for mental and emotional functioning. We will continue to learn more about the mind-brain system, though the philosophical import of all this is still unclear. The question of consciousness is a very hot topic in philosophy and is likely to continue to be so in the future.
In conclusion, I confess that I still do not know if a science of happiness is possible. It is certainly a brave attempt at integrative thinking. My hesitation in indorsing it comes from a disquiet I have about its empirical credentials. How can we criticize any life-plan for happiness? Can we choose between the worth of lives? Just because I find the idea of lying around all day drinking beer and watching football unappealing, does not mean that it cannot be another person’s happiness. I know that philosophers have been critical of what most people think will make them happy. For Plato, knowledge is virtue, and living virtuously is the essence of living happily. For Aristotle, happiness is our final good. On his account, the contemplative life is the happiest, and after that living in accordance with the moral virtues. The Stoics find our happiness in fortitude and duty, the epicureans in the pleasures of discourse and high thinking, the cynics in transcending conventional wisdom and morality, and skeptics in a willing suspension of belief through which they attain peace of mind.
Perhaps the way forward is to see happiness under two headings. The first is studied by the science of happiness, the second by philosophical investigation. The first starts with peoples' assertions about what makes them happy and how happy they are. The second starts from reflections on one’s life as a whole, taking into account how one is feeling at the moment, but not resting there. The question of the good and happy life is one that each individual must undertake for himself or herself. It involves choosing a life that reflects one’s basic values and approach to life. Is it an admirable life or not? I am not sure that true happiness is compatible with living what, in one’s own view, is a contemptible, mediocre or purely mundane life. There is no doubt that all this new scientific work will augment our personal reflections on happiness and how to achieve it, but I am yet to be convinced that we will be able to make people happy through a scientific method. I would be happy to be proved wrong.
Meditation 95: The Meaning of Life
Talk about meaning makes sense in many contexts. We talk about the meaning of words and sentences, the meaning of smoke on the horizon, or meaning of a drop in stock prices. We ask people what they mean by what they say or do. Sometimes ‘meaning’ is another name for ‘purpose’ or ‘intention.’ In these contexts, we can discuss questions about meaning, and, even if the reasoning is difficult, we know what we are talking about. The case is different when people ask in a general way ‘What is the meaning of human life or of a particular human life?’
This is an important question because apparently people have a need to feel that they are living a meaningful life, or that human life itself has meaning. However, the question is not like that about the meaning of words, smoke or the stock market. So, what kind of meaning are people seeking? Perhaps the felt need for meaning originates in an existential dissatisfaction with life not shared by the other animals. A distant observer would never know this by looking at us. If intergalactic zoologists spent a few centuries simply observing life on earth from a space ship and cataloging its inhabitants, would they have any special reason to distinguish human life from the life of other animals? I doubt it. Human beings are unique, but no more so than the other animals. What the zoologists would see are simply various kinds of animals living out their species-specific life cycles.
For example, they would see humans going about their lives eating, sleeping, excreting and reproducing, things all animals do. However, no one asks what the meaning of life is for badgers or skunks, nor do badgers and skunks seem to ask that question. They simply live out their lives, replace themselves and die. How different are we? To the intergalactic zoologists, I believe humans would appear on a par with other animal species.
Somehow it is not enough for humans to live an animal life, die an animal death, and simply vanish into the mists of time. Such a life seems to lack meaning for creatures who are aware of the prospect of death, change and how everything ends. Perhaps the question of meaning is important for humans because it would be reassuring to believe that something is saved from the wreck of time. The dream of immortality, in whatever form, is also part of the attempt to elevate human life beyond the natural realm. Religion also speaks to this search for a transcendent meaning of life.
What I believe the intergalactic zoologists would note about the human animals under their purview is that they are essentially meaning machines. Humans generate meanings wherever they go, and so it is only natural that they would ultimately ask about the meaning of life itself. The trouble is that the concept of meaning has boundaries beyond which it no longer makes any sense to speak of meaning. This is similar to Kant’s complaint that concepts having their proper applications in one area are inappropriately applied to another. An example is Kant’s criticism of the use of the concept of causality beyond its use in understanding the empirical world to explain the existence of the universe as a whole.
Does the same thing happen when we start asking about the meaning of life? Is it possible to extend the concept of meaning beyond its many legitimate applications to the concept to life itself? The answer would give human life a transcendent meaning, or ‘Meaning’ with a capital ‘M’. The search for this kind of meaning leads directly to thoughts about God making the universe and human life meaningful. This is where reincarnation and immortality come in, so that this life we live is not ‘just for now’ but has an eternal import. There is a great fear that if this kind of Meaning is absent from human life, then human life is utterly meaningless.
The search for transcendent meaning and the thought that life would be meaningless without it is very like a category mistake. The truth is that humans cannot help living meaningful lives, even without any greater meaning. Indeed, the view that life is meaningless itself confers meaning on life, if only in a negative sense.
There may be no transcendent meaning of life, but there is something to the quest for it that many people believe makes their lives meaningful. Perhaps what people are looking for is a meaning for their lives that goes beyond their own merely particular concerns and activities. We feel better if we think that our lives are part of a larger concern. Such a concern gives us a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. However, this is a meaning that life can have without projecting some even greater meaning upon it.
On a lower level, personal meanings permeate the lives of individuals. Things and people matter to us and give our lives meaning with a little ‘m’. Without those ‘little meanings’ life would indeed be empty and meaningless in a way that causes true distress. Little things like small acts of kindness, support for friends, gatherings in celebration, condolences in times of sadness, all give life meaning even if not a transcendent 'Meaning'.
So, in conclusion, I would argue that there are three levels of meaning to human life. One is misguided and two are legitimate. First is the misguided search for a 'Great Meaning' that gives significance to life as a whole. Next is the meaning conferred on a life that cares for something more than the simple satisfaction of personal desires. Examples are political or humanitarian causes in which we join together with others to do something beyond the power of any individual. Finally, there are the little meanings of everyday life that come from living with others and acting in the world. These include the memories and anticipations of daily life, as well as the things of personal significance that surround us. On these lower levels of meaningfulness, there is no doubt that human life has meaning. On the higher level, the question of whether human life is meaningful is itself meaningless.
Meditation 96: Morality without God
Teaching ethics a number of years ago, I was told by an earnest student that there can be no morality without God. He seemed to agree implicitly with the idea that “If God does not exist, then all things are permitted.” He also believed in a visceral way that without God’s restraining hand, people would become riddled with vice, steal, kill, rape, take drugs or indulge in sinful sex of all kinds. It is almost as if humans are just waiting to escape the leash and run amok. On this view, there is no reason whatsoever to be moral without the promise of heaven in the next life or the threat of hell fire.
I found upon asking that many of my students felt the same way. This surprised me greatly, given the attempts in recent centuries to find ways to conceive of morality in secular terms. For example, neither Kantian ethical theory not Utilitanianism pin notions of right and wrong to the existence of God. Kant thought he could anchor moral thinking to the notion of duty and the categorical imperative, which demands that we treat all people as ends in themselves and act upon universal prescriptive principles. However, God still had a role to play in Kant’s philosophy as chief cheerleader for the moral law within us.
Utiliarianism is even more secular. It defines right and wrong in terms of maximizing pleasure and happiness, and improving the conditions of human life right here on earth. Instead of God pointing to the moral law and endorsing it, we have an ethics that is based purely on human nature. If fact, utilitarianism gives us a way to judge God’s commands. If what God commands goes against the greatest happiness principle, then I am afraid it would be God’s commands that must be jettisoned.
There is no doubt that some valuable moral insights have been promulated by religion. In fact, some version of the Golden Rule seems to be a good place to start in thinking of morality. This is a principle that may have come from religion, but we can get there simply by reflecting on the ways human beings interrelate. “Treat others as you wish to be treated” or, better to my mind, “Do not treat others as you do not with to be treated” are both admirable rules for life. We may not get to “love your neighbor as yourself” from the Golden Rule, but we certainly get close.
What interests me in this regard is a thought experiment. Let us imagine that there was never a God based moral system, no Diving commandments, no rules of conduct springing from Supernatural Revelation. From this perspective, let us now look at the great moral debates of our age and see how they look.
First, let us look at the debates currently raging in the moral sphere. Included in this list are abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, cloning, drugs, contraception, sex education and homosexuality. God’s finger actively stirs up these debates, because once you believe in the existence of God, there can be no argument with His commands.
So my question is how these debates would look from a moral point of view derived without God’s special instructions to us.
Meditation 97: Understanding Mystery
One long strand of philosophical reflection attempts to empty the universe of mystery. Many philosophers have aimed to dispel superstitions, magical thoughts, irrational beliefs and uncanny appearances. Loving truth and knowledge, they have tried to understand the universe and themselves without calling for supernatural help. On this approach, philosophy ends with the disappearance of mystery. An omniscient intelligence would find nothing mysterious, but would have no need of philosophy, either.
Still, philosophy has never totally effaced the idea of mystery, and we can ask about its nature and try to explain why we have it. A mystery is something we do not understand, something that puzzles our senses, imagination or understanding. Some mysteries are solved. Some await a solution. Others remain unsolved for purely contingent reasons. Still others remain mysteries because we lack the intellectual ability to solve them, or because trying to think of a 'solution' is already wrong-headed.
To begin, let us distinguish natural from supernatural mysteries. Natural mysteries are things we do not understand, but which, if we finally dispel them, we will understand by thought, observation and experience without appeal to supernatural intelligence or agency. Natural mysteries can be little or big. A little mystery is the random disappearance of my socks, or why it rained living fish in the desert. Big natural mysteries are puzzles like the nature of gravity, dark matter, the Big Bang, the ultimate composition of the universe, and so on.
Believing that natural mysteries have natural explanations, we have sought for these explanations and have been very successful in dispelling some of them. For example, the role of the heart was a mystery for a long time, and there were many ideas about its function. However, when Harvey proved that the heart is a pump for pushing blood through the body, he solved the mystery. This does not mean that we will always be successful in dispelling natural mysteries, but our efforts to understand are not pointless. Magic tricks, too, are mysterious to those who do not know how the magician does them.
Supernatural mysteries also come in small and large sizes. Small ones include sightings of ghosts, the operations of poltergeists, communication with dead loved ones, astral projection, near-death experiences, and so on. We do not know how to take any of this, but even if we believe in the afterlife and immaterial spirits, such things are still mysterious to us.
We find the big supernatural mysteries in religion. In Christianity, for example, it is a mystery how God created the universe from nothing, or become a man; or how, in the Catholic tradition, bread and wine turn into the blood and body of Christ in the sacrament of communion. These are the ‘sacred mysteries’ of the church, and they will remain mysteries forever because God is beyond our comprehension.
Besides these, I would add another sort of mystery, one that is neither natural nor supernatural, but metaphysical. We might call it the 'mystery of being', to borrow a phrase from Heidegger. Even if we answer all our scientific questions about the universe and no longer find anything mysterious in it, that there is a universe at all is still a mystery. Each of us confronts this mystery in one way or another. One way is to deny that there are any mysteries that we cannot solve, at least in principle. Another is to embrace and elaborate mysteries through rites, dress and dietary codes, sacrifices, liturgies, particular beliefs about mysteries, and so on. In the extreme, this path leads to the quest for arcane knowledge and the assertion of the wildest superstitions as profound mysteries.
The first approach has a major flaw. Trying to dispel all mystery is a forgetful response to our being in the world and the amazing universe we inhabit. It closes our horizons and is too rigid. The second approach is liable to fall prey to irrationality, credulity, and, ultimately, superstition. However, experiencing the metaphysical mystery of being in a world at all, if only for a short time, keeps open the wide horizon of existence, and gives us a sense of living in an immeasurable vastness. It is hard to put into words. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, and I suggest that it ends in wonder, too. Keeping a sense of metaphysical mystery alive is one way to preserve this sense of wonder in a philosophically comprehensible way.
Meditation 98 Is Agnosticism Cowardly?
Is it respectable to be agnostic about the existence of God, or is it simply a form of cowardice? The agnostic suspends belief on the question of God's existence because neither theists nor atheists can prove their claims beyond a reasonable doubt. Not even our contemporary atheists claim to prove, deductively, that God does not exist. However, sensible atheists try to show that God's existence is so unliksely that we have no rational warrant for belief in God. The key, here, is to decide how important it is to have rational grounds for believing in God. If one agrees with a logically minded philosopher like Bertram Russell, then we ought to believe only that for which we have good reasons. Not having good reasons for believing in something will count against believing in it. Traditionally, philosophers commit themselves to finding the best reasons for their beliefs.
The question of God's existence is a metaphysical one, and this is part of the problem. Metaphysical questions do not find firm answers in the history of philosophy. Though individuals may stand firm until they die, the arguments go on. Critics have complained that there is no apparent progress in metaphysics. Philosophers are still arguing about God, and the same old arguments go round and round under different reformulations. Nevertheless, we can explain this apparent lack of progress by noting that such is the nature of metaphysical debate. Each position has its own set of assumptions and convictions, and proponents believe that they can accommodate all of them within one metaphysical view or another. The trouble is that two clashing metaphysical views cannot both be true, yet each asserts the truth of its own position. Fighting ensues, but victory is temporary and rhetorical. Now one side has the upper hand, now the other.
However, there is no reason to despair over this state of affairs. Each side in a metaphysical debate is learning from its opponent just what its own position is. By learning to defend and to attack, each side gains a depth of understanding about its own view and that of the opponent, even while realizing that ultimate agreement is unlikely, given their differing assumptions and commitments. This does not render the conversation pointless. It shows us that the element of choice is paramount in shaping metaphysical convictions. Nothing determines one's ultimate posture toward the universe but oneself. Theists choose to believe in God. Atheists do not. The former believes in supernatural powers and causes, the latter believes that everything we can understand has a natural explanation. An agnostic feels that the leap of faith into theism or atheism is without foundation and thus, like a skeptic, suspends belief.
The stand of not knowing whether God exists is certainly a logically possible position. If one cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of God, then agnosticism is also intellectually respectable, and, perhaps, theoretically unavoidable. However, is it morally or ethically respectable? Perhaps the courageous thing to do is to assert a consistent atheism as the most likely theory, given what we know of ourselves and the world. This would be no dogmatic assertion of atheism, but a claim that allows the tiniest logical possibility that theism might be true. However, just because something is logically possible is not, in itself, a reason to believe it.
Perhaps the moral thing, the courageous thing, is to adopt an agnosticism with strong atheist tendencies. Otherwise, one might be open to the accusation of taking the easy way out. Pascal's Wager is like this. You might as well believe in the existence of God, because, if you are right, you gain an eternal reward; and, if you are wrong, you lose nothing, since death is simply an end to conscious existence. On the other hand, if you do not believe, and there is a God, woe betide you as a skeptic. You have everything to lose and nothing to gain by your disbelief. Is agnosticism is a similar kind of insurance policy? Does the agnostic take false comfort from the thought that it is better not to deny God’s existence absolutely, since a wrathful God might be less wrathful with an agnostic than an atheist?
Assuming for the sake of argument that the problem of evil, the failure of the metaphysical ‘proofs’ for God’s existence, and the lack of empirical support, all make God’s existence most unlikely. The agnostic fails to take this into account for the sake of a peaceful life. Run-ins between believers and nonbelievers are anything but peaceful. To push atheism in the face of believers is to ask for aggravation.
A critic may claim that this reticence points to another problem with agnosticism. It makes the agnostic too tolerant of religion as a whole, and too willing to give equal time to positions that do not warrant it. This is like a Creationist arguing that 'Intelligent Design' ought to be given equal time in our schools with evolutionary theory. If things are set 99 percent in one way, and 1 percent in another, there is no reason to give equal time to both. If we accept reason’s urging to reject superstition and to explain things as best we can with our limited human understanding, then, perhaps, the courageous thing is to be a practical atheist, while remaining a theoretical agnostic. Practical agnostics, on this account, are indeed somewhat cowardly.
Meditation 99: Life is a Dream
Metaphors draw two unlikely suspects together in an illuminating way. The metaphor “Achilles is a lion” is not literally true, unless I have a lion named “Achilles.” Yet it draws attention to the courage and strength of the hero with a punch that straight prose lacks. “X is brave and strong” applies to many people. The metaphor distinguishes Achilles from others who are also brave and strong. Metaphors make readers think about the deeper identity that underlies surface differences. A good one sparks new thoughts and connections between ideas, but metaphors are never literally true.
“Life is a dream” is a well known metaphor. On the surface, seeking an identity between waking life and dreaming seems unpromising. After all, we distinguish ‘dreaming’ from ‘waking life’, and without this contrast, it would no longer make sense to speak of ‘dreaming’ in the first place. Life is real, but dreams are not. No matter how vivid at the time, what happens in dreams does not actually happen. I dream that I marry the boss’s daughter, but wake up to find it is time to go to work sweeping her dad's factory floor. I can fly in my dreams, but not in waking life. There are other contrasts. Time is disjointed in dreams, but can be mapped using clock time in ‘real life’. I wake to a continuing life, but each dream is complete in itself. It is extremely rare, I would imagine, to continue last night’s dream tonight. Dreams certainly appear illusory in comparison with normal waking life.
At this point, we might ask why “Life is a Dream” has captured so much attention over the years? From what direction do we hear it? The metaphor seems to be coming from an esoteric tradition, from mysticism, Taoism, or perhaps Buddhism. As a realistically-minded philosopher, I have resisted the idea that life is somehow a dream. And yet, I have thought about it over the years. I stub my toe. It hurts. Is this a dream? I lose my job, my wife, my cat and my dog. Are these just dreams? The world aches with war, plague, death, hatred, hunger and despair. Are all these dreams? Are the suffering of millions just illusions?
Another way I have resisted the life/dream metaphor is by rejecting mysticism as not sufficiently rational. In one strand of the mystical tradition as I understand it, what the ignorant normally call 'life' is actually illusory. It is the veil of Maya, fueled by craving for the unreal and delusional delights of trying to satisfy endlessly proliferating desires. Everything is changing in every way all the time. Nothing stays the same. We are supposed to escape from the illusion of Maya and the wheel of life (Samara) by understanding that life is just a dream, and all this ceaseless striving is a kind of sleepwalking. Best to give up the desires which give birth to the world of craving. This sounds good, but once again we are up against the fact that life feels real to those who are struggling to survive in a difficult and frightening world. Thinking that life is just a dream seemed to me just an excuse to forget about the world and all the problems we find there.
After coming to these dark reflections, I found a question to move forward. Are dreams actually the same as illusions? Consider an optical illusion. Once we find out that it is an illusion, our minds corrects for the faulty perception. A straight stick looks bent when it is half under water. Once we learn a little optics, we see why it looks this way. Of course, it might be a bent stick after all, but that would just be funny. Are dreams illusions like this? I think not. No matter how sure I am that it was a dream after I wake up, there is no way to ‘correct’ for the illusion while in the dream itself. Dreams just do seem real at the time.
First of all, a dream is not illusory on its own terms. While dreaming, the dream is real. Second, dreams have meaning. To say that something is a dream is not to say that it is meaningless, pointless or trivial. Third, and most importantly, though dreams do vanish upon waking, the ephemeral nature of dreams does not detract from their existence or significance.
From this standpoint, there is a deep identity between dreams and waking life. For me, it has to do with the varnishing of days and dreams together. Yesterday has all the phenomenological reality of yesterday’s dream. It is gone, not to be retrieved. Yesterday is like a play that ran its course, stirred up actions and passions, and then passed away in sleep. What is the memory of the wonderful trip you took to the sea shore last summer but a dream? This is the deep structural identity of memories, dreams and waking life.
Meditation 100 Is it Rational to be Optimistic or Pessimistic?
An optimist is someone who looks at the bright side of life and expects good things to happen. A ‘cock-eyed’ optimist is one who believes, against all the odds, that everything will turn out all right in the end. Against this, the pessimist looks at the dark side of life and expects bad things to happen. A ‘dyed in the wool’ pessimist is one who believes that everything will turn out badly in the end.
On the face of it, pessimists seems to have sober reason on their side. For the pessimist, we have to be realistic, and the fact is that everything will eventually come crashing down. Entropy takes care of the end of things, and that end is increasingly chaotic. All systems move from a more to a less ordered state, until finally, they cease to exist. Our lives are like this. We are little anti-entropy machines, and our living bodies try to keep back the encroaching disintegration. In this they are successful for awhile, but, in the end, our bodies succumb to the forces of decay and finally move to the disordered state we call death. For the pessimist, the world is a disaster waiting to happen, and the optimist is simply living in an illusion.
Some systematic differences have been pointed out between the two approaches to life. First is the old saw about whether the bottle of wine is half full or half empty. The truth is that the bottle is both half full and half empty, and it is entirely up to the person whether to be happy or sad about this. It is the individual’s choice to be happy having half a bottle left, or sad that it is half gone.
Another difference between them is that the pessimist sees negative outcomes as the norm, while the optimist sees positive outcomes as the norm. The result is that when an obstacle arises, the optimist sees it as a temporary and local problem that can be overcome. The pessimist sees a problem or obstacle as what is to be expected, and getting a good result as the exception. It might be argued that the pessimist has the right in this, because, if one predicts a bad result that does not materialize, one is pleasantly surprised, whereas, if the bad result occurs, one takes it as only what is to be expected and is therefore not so affected by it as an optimist would be.
Despite this, there is currently much discussion about the value of optimism as an operational principle. It is claimed that the optimistic person is happier than the pessimist, travels more hopefully, is healthier and lives longer. In addition, the optimist is said to be more resilient and better able to cope with life’s setbacks.
It is true that bad things can happen and often do, but the opposite is also true. The optimist does not have to be ‘cock-eyed’. It is possible to be a realist and a moderate optimist at the same time. Optimism is more about maintaining a positive attitude than anything else. Pessimists do not pursue difficult projects because they are sure that they will fail before starting. It is hard to get moving on a project when what is before one’s mind are all the things that might, and probably will, go wrong. An optimist has a ‘can do’ approach that concentrates more on success than failure, while recognizing the problems more as opportunities to make progress than as crippling setbacks.
The sort of optimism that pessimists decry is really a silly kind of unjustified belief that the future will bring whatever one hopes will come to pass. However, another kind of optimism is not a matter of belief but of attitude. It is really more about having faith in one’s own competence than a matter of belief. It is the feeling that one will be able to cope with whatever happens as it comes along.
Of course, there will come a time when one will not be able to cope with some disaster or another. However, the optimist does not let that stop him or her from acting to prevent it or to pursue some other course of action, even while knowing that eventually everything comes to nothing.
My conclusion, therefore, is that the rational choice is for optimism, despite the fact that nothing lasts and all accomplishments eventually come to nothing. I would summarize my position as long term pessimism combined with short term optimism. And since our lives are short, it is best, from a practical point of view, to cultivate optimism as a modus operandi for our lives. To expect disaster and failure as the norm may protect one from being too disappointed when things go wrong, but that is no way to live. It is always possible to look at the world pessimistically or optimistically. The choice is ours.
Meditation 101 Religious and Scientific Faith
My perspective on the world is agnostic, secular and scientific. From that perspective, I used to think that faith, as the belief in things unseen, only concerns religions. Religions require many beliefs in unseen things. We need faith in order to have beliefs about them, because there is no way of knowing the truth of statements about supernatural or paranormal entities. We cannot reliably detect supernatural beings by ordinary sensory or generally empirical means. “Reliably” is the key term, since there is no lack of anecdotal testimony. However, mere assertion does not make the anecdotes true. It takes faith to believe them with confidence.
More crucially, it takes faith to believe in the the existence of gods or a single God with supernatural powers and occult qualities. None of the proofs showing the existence of supernatural beings are uncontested. Therefore, though faith is necessary for belief in things unseen, it is not sufficient for knowledge. It is always possible to be skeptical about them.
I choose to be agnostic about things I cannot know, and this means that I must allow the bare logical possibility of the existence of Divine Being. However, advocating faith in them seemed to me a trick to derive knowledge from sheer belief. Somehow people of religious faith are simply making an elementary epistemological mistake. The mistake is to think that faith converts what is an objective uncertainty into unshakable knowledge. A proposition does not become true simply because a person believes it hard enough. It is always possible to be wrong about a belief, but this is not true of knowledge. I thought we could dissolve the claims of faith by giving everyone an elementary course in epistemology. People only need to learn the distinction between knowledge and belief, and then they will see that their faith is simply the holding of uncertain beliefs with a subjective passion of conviction, not knowledge of a supernatural world.
What a fool I was. Though keeping the idea that faith does not provide knowledge of its objects, I came to realize that faith in things unseen belongs to human life. This applies as much to the secular/scientific person as to the religious person. Both operate on presuppositions that are ultimately unfounded and unknown. Hume points the way in his account of inductive reasoning. He pointed out that while all our positive knowledge of the world is based on the proposition that the future will be like the past, we cannot know this for certain. Things were very different just after the Big Bang than they are now, and they may become different again in the future. We just do not know how different the future will be..
One article of scientific faith is that the universe is predictable, and that the human mind has powers enough to understand it to a large extent. The human mind is limited by space, time, and the bounds of sense. These limits enclose what we call the 'natural' world; namely, a universe that is best understood through empirical, testable, scientific inquiry.
Another article of scientific faith, articulated by Kant, is that we can discover increasingly simple and unified sets of physical laws, and an increasingly complete scientific theory of the workings of the universe. There is no way that we can know this a priori. Nevertheless, looking for the unities and identities behind seemingly disparate and complex phenomena is what science does, based on hunches and considerable experience of progress in that direction. Kant called this a practical postulate of Pure Reason. It is an operational principle that allows scientific investigations to proceed. There would no reason to investigate nature if we thought from the get-go that the universe is ultimately a meaningless chaos.
It follows that we must all have faith in things unseen that we cannot ultimately know. Given this, how do religious and scientific faith differ? One important difference is that religious faith sees itself as establishing supernatural truths, while scientific faith does not. Scientific faith rests content with reasonably certain beliefs about the world that are theoretically open to correction. Religious faith remains viable only on the assumption that religious truth exists and can be confirmed by faith. Scientific faith remains viable even realizing that it must operate on ultimately unfounded assumptions. Or, to put is another way, there is a different attitude toward what faith can accomplish. Both religion and science begin with beliefs. In the first case, faith turns belief into religious knowledge. In second case, faith leaves us in the realm of belief. The 'faith-based' beliefs of science merely play an operational role in the search for better and better theories.
We can now understand another difference between religious and scientific faith. This is the characteristic dogmatism of religion and the skepticism of science. It makes sense that religion is dogmatic, since it is convinced of supernatural truths through the power of faith. Other views cannot be allowed as competitors, for when one possesses the truth, any change in belief will mark a slide into apostasy and falsehood. Scientific faith does not have to commit itself to any particular metaphysical view, and can thus remain skeptical while putting its provisional faith to work achieving such significant, though limited, progress as we are able to make.
Meditation 102: Time and Happiness
I am perplexed by the question of our relation to time and happiness. On the one hand, our lives are undoubtedly made up of present moments that succeed each other. There is no going back. Eventually, my tomorrows come to an end, and I assume that time will no longer exist for me. At that time, there will be no 'me' to be happy or unhappy, to experience pain or pleasure. Excluding the miracle of an afterlife, the discussion of happiness involves only the time that lies between birth and death.
How can we look at a human lifetime? One way is to look at it as the 'times' of our life. I was young once, and that was a time of my life. Today is another time in my life, and the days succeed one another in a regular fashion. There is a sense in which we never leave the present moment. However, another way to look at the time of one's life is to imagine it 'as a whole.' I say, 'imagine', because it is literally impossible to view your life as a whole. To do that you would have to be able to read your own obituary. Yet, we may ask ourselves today if our lives 'as a whole' embody the values we hold most dear?
What have these different views of a lifetime to do with happiness? Are we to be happy in the moments of life that succeed each other, or is happiness a quality of life as a whole. Philosophers have divided on this question. The Hedonists believe that the happy life is one in which there is a quantitative preponderance of pleasures over pains in the course of a lifetime. All we actually have are the moments of pleasure or pain in our lives, and these moments have a subjective quality about which we are rarely confused. Therefore, the best plan is to structure one's life in such a way that a train of pleasures and enjoyments are the norm, and pains come along as infrequent visitors.
From another point of view, hedonism looks too easy and too subjective. Pleasures involve the satisfaction of desires, but are all desires, and the pleasures that accompany their satisfaction, worthy of pursuit? Some lives that contain many pleasures might not be worth living. I love the example of the Roman Emperor, Diocletian, who retired to his country estate and whiled away the rest of his life tearing the wings off flies. Is this human happiness? Who is to judge and by what standards? Values besides pleasure come in here.
Aristotle clearly believes that the pursuit of pleasure, unguided by good judgment, is not sufficient for happiness. It is not that the happy person has anything against pleasure as such, but rather allows some pleasures and avoids others. Wisdom tells us that the pleasures of drink are often followed by hangovers and of food by upset stomachs. Aristotle sensibly advises moderation in all things.
Also, there is the old traditional distinction between the 'higher' and the 'lower' pleasures. The lower pleasures are animal or physical pleasures, more like pleasurable sensations than thoughts. The higher are the pleasures of the mind, of art, theory or the like. We have to learn to appreciate the higher pleasures, and develop our sensitivities beyond physical sensations. So, though I would not call them 'higher' or 'lower', I do recognize a distinction between those pleasures that primarily involve introspected pleasurable sensations in one's body, and those that rely more on perception and thought than raw sensations.
If we are to vet the pleasures of the moment so as to attain true happiness, then we must have a standard by which to judge those pleasures that are part of a truly happy life and those that are not. Here, Aristotle also has a position that can help us. For him, the truly happy person lives a long and honorable life, pursuing and attaining a degree of moral and intellectual excellence. We ought to live our lives as advised by our reason, and our reason has care of ourselves as a whole and over a life time. Thus we can judge how well we are doing in living the kind of life that, with a bit of luck, will be happy overall. It is true that the happiness of a philosopher like Aristotle is heavy on the supreme value of Reason in the determination of excellence. As self-directing, the happy person gains a measure of autonomy and control over his or her own thoughts, emotions and feelings. Of course, Aristotle finds the highest happiness in the exercise of theoretical reason, and thus values the joys of learning above the pleasures of the flesh.
We may not agree with Aristotle about the nature of happiness, but he does succeed in showing us how to question the hedonist's account. How important is the pleasure or pain of the present moment when viewed in the light of a lifetime? The present moment, though it is all we actually live through, seems to be more important when we are young, and not so important when we are older. Many of the favorite things of my youth no longer interest me as much. Other things have taken their place. I hope my judgment is better now than it was then. I can put the present more into the perspective of a lifetime than before. Perhaps this is one reason that Aristotle believed that the young cannot be truly happy, no matter the undoubted pleasures of youth. As he wrote so beautifully, “One swallow does not a summer make.” A happy life overall is about achieving something which, in one's own opinion, is worthwhile. It is having purposes that give life meaning, with pleasures and good times as just two of the ingredients of a good and happy life.
Meditation: 103 Inner Freedom
What is inner freedom? One way into this question is through an old Taoist story, told by Chuang-Tzu, about the three butchers and their knives. The first butcher is learning his trade and has to sharpen his knife every day, since it picks up nicks from hitting the bones. The second butcher is at a much higher level. Through skillful use, he only has to sharpen his knife once a month. However, the third butcher is a true master of the art and never has to sharpen his knife.
I want to emphasize the ease with which the master butcher cuts the meat from the bone. His freedom lies in not hitting any snags, finding the joints and the passageways through the carcass. The meat simply falls away from his knife, while the butcher's arm encounters no resistance. It is this “not encountering resistance within oneself” that I think of as inner freedom. And just as it takes the master butcher time and practice to develop his skill, so it takes time and life experience to develop inner freedom. Even though we all have our problems and patterns of reaction, we can cultivate the ability to live freely within ourselves.
Each of us has a 'second nature' or character that we create through and by our interactions with others. The culture and history into which we are born circumscribes what we can become in life and restricts the range of our options. For example, an ancient Greek did not have the option of becoming a computer programmer. However, these limitations do not prevent or cause inner freedom. Inner freedom is gained or lost by the way a person thinks, feels and perceives. Each of us is singly responsible for how we respond to the conditions, events and occurrences of our lives.
Inner freedom is contrasted with outer freedom. Outer freedom has to do with civil and personal rights, the rule of law, due process, security of property, safety on the streets, and so on. Outer freedom is the freedom to move about unhindered as one follows the self-chosen course of daily life. Outer freedom is the stuff of politics and public policy. Inner freedom, by contrast, is more subjective and not totally tied to the existence or level of outer freedom. It is no doubt easier to find inner freedom in a world where outer freedom is assured, but inner freedom is more of a way of being in oneself than a determination of circumstances.
Though individuals must find their own inner freedom, many philosophers have discussed ways of life that hinder or further it. The ancient Stoics, for example, maintained that detachment from the ephemeral desires of the moment gives one a freedom of mind and judgment, a secure place from which to observe oneself, other people and the world without becoming overly attached or appalled.
Another element of inner freedom is freedom from inner compulsions. It is hard to see someone in the grip of addiction possessing inner freedom. The same goes for people who cannot escape obsessive negative thinking. To continually keep sorrows and grievances alive, going over the loss or the insult again and again is incompatible with inner freedom. The Stoics like to remind us that the great dramas of our lives are but passing shadows against the backdrop of the universe.
Inner freedom also involves a lack of deep discontent in oneself. Such discontent comes out in the unpleasant feelings of envy, jealousy, greed, and thwarted egocentric pride. Contrariwise, inner freedom connotes a kind of ease within oneself. Moreover, this ease has something to do with living morally. To be conscious of having done no terrible wrong is a relief to the mind and contributes to inner freedom.
Attaining inner freedom is an achievement, not a random happening. It comes from the efforts we must make to become aware of our responses to what we encounter, and to train ourselves to modify them for the better. We must learn from experience and thought how we fit into the universe as a whole, and how the universe fits into us. We must discover our genuine interests and needs, what really satisfies us, what we most enjoy, and allow them to guide us in life. The key to inner freedom is to bring all these things into alignment so that one's efforts simply flow in a concerted and coordinated succession of actions, feelings and thoughts.
There is lots of good advice about cultivating inner freedom in ancient philosophy. From other quarters
we hear about the value of a good diet, exercise, mindfulness, conscious breathing, meditation, contemplation, and various spiritual practices. We also hear about the value of gratitude in cultivating inner freedom, as well as the benefits of living well-disposed toward others and helping them when we can.
Everyone gets upset from time to time. In a flash, our brains and bodies release chemicals that make things worse. Creating a gap between the thought and the reaction gives us the space to reappraise the situation. In that space we can change our reaction, prevent the release of stressful chemicals, and soon end the upset by re-establishing inner freedom. Nevertheless, it is no easy matter to find a path through life that encounters no internal resistance. This is the secret of inner freedom that each of us, over time, must find for ourselves though practice and reflection.