Sunday, April 30, 2017

Who dares to have answers? Not I. Not yet. [4/25/17: Solomon on Existentialism]

            And here we come to the end.  What is there to say?  As ever, I have many questions and few answers.  I have misgivings, I suppose, about Solomon’s refusal to attempt to define existentialism; I think Sartre’s concept of “essence,” the assigned cognitive construct of a thing that differs from person to person; there is no idea why one definition should need to be final, nor why an idea cannot evolve and shift from person to person, time to time, context to context.
            I’d personally characterize the existentialist endeavor as exploring the problem of how to live in an uncertain world without demonstrable meaning; I think this definition robust.  It ties to Camus’s question of whether living is worthwhile at all, and his demonstration of the absurdity of choice and meaning against the indifferent universe; it ties into Kierkegaard’s embrace of “objective uncertainty” with the “passion of the infinite”; it ties to de Unamuno’s recognition that action and moral value cannot truly arise from rock-solid principles; it ties, ultimately, to Sartre, who recognizes that we have no external recourse for actions, nothing that can truly tell us how to act rightly, and so we are doomed to create value and meaning through choice.  This is Kierkegaard’s “leap,” which Solomon speaks of in his ninth section; we can discover no unquestionable criteria to guide choices in the world, so, in choosing, we create our criteria.
            Sartre, or, perhaps, my reading of Sartre, goes farther; existence precedes essence, that is, facticity exists far before any reflective comprehension, any mental construct, fictional world posited by the mind and linked, hopefully, through metaphor, simplification, and filtering, to the infinite, meaningless morass of information that constitutes this complex world.  It is filtering, selection of detail, that absorbs and dissolves the atoms and their momenta, the specific, ever-shifting arrangements, the vast empty spaces, and far more information besides contained in a common chair into the construct of “chair” as a thing.  The abstract, schematic concept created by simple, limited perception alone already privileges and values some data (the chair’s semi-dense arrangement of matter, the wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation it reflects, complex, ever-shifting spatial arrangements elided under such ideas as “texture” and “smell” and “weight”) over other information.  Even before we reach prescription, we create meaning with the simplest act of perception-which-is-description.
            In light of this, I suppose, I am either more humble, or, more likely, more cowardly than Sartre; for, as explained in previous postings, I don’t see why I should think of my actions as creating rightness or serving as a model for anyone save myself.  To be sure, I am responsible for my actions’ consequences—absolutely responsible—but I have not the power nor the reason to demand that any other should act as I would act in any given situation, due to the characteristics in which we differ under our shared label of “human.”  No, I will simply act, in accordance with my sentiments—socially created and experientially suggested though they doubtless are—simply because I can see no other way to act and pursue happiness.  And with this, I am content.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Freedom and being-as-contingent-doing [4/18/17: Sartre on “Bad Faith” and Being-for-Others, Simone de Beauvoir]

            Now, I like Sartre, but I love de Beauvoir.  She’s incredibly articulate—probably my favorite author in the class.  That’s not to say, however, that I think I fully understand everything she says.  There’s nothing to do but to get cracking!
            I keep coming back to de Beauvoir’s passage on freedom (Solomon, 294), which we spent quite some time on in class, because I am utterly convinced she describes a “third way” besides futile action and empty resignation in response to barrier or adversity.  I just have trouble really understanding her description.  “[I]n order for my freedom not to risk coming to grief against the obstacle which its very engagement has raised [see the parallel to Sartre’s crag, which becomes an obstacle only when one engages in with intent that it blocks], in order that it might still pursue its movement in the face of the failure, it must, by giving itself a particular content, aim by means of it at an end which is nothing else but precisely the free movement of existence.”  I’ll try to dissect this statement to understand it better.
            The “content” to which de Beauvoir refers is particularity—“the particularity of the project . . . determines the limitation of [the actor’s] power, but . . . also . . . gives the project its content and permits it to be set up.”  Obviously, a project must have some particular context, aim, and method, which, in constituting the project in the real world, give it meaning.  An abstract project—“to open doors,” for example—does nothing unless one applies it to the particular doors one encounters.  Cool!  But that particularity, that content, must be means, not an end in itself—otherwise its failure would invalidate the effort and send the actor into despair.  No, the particularity must be means toward “the free movement of existence.”  This is the crucial phrase, and I’m really not sure what it means.
            Maybe de Beauvoir’s example will help.  For her version of Van Gogh, “painting was a personal way of life and of communication with others which in another form could be continued even in an asylum.”  This is important!  The painting is a means to a certain way of life, one which may be pursued through other means if painting is denied.  Is this the “free movement of existence” to which she refers?  The pursuit of the abstract project, whatever it may be, over emphasis on important, but replaceable, means?  It may be.  That’s my best shot, honestly.  I’d be interested to hear your reading.
            Moving on to Sartre, I’ll stick to my interpretation and maintain that “bad faith” isn’t bad, per se, nor is it truly evitable.  The waiter cannot be a waiter in the same way as a cup is a cup; doing is being, and the only way to be a waiter is to wait.  But the waiter has transcendent potential beyond his present facticity, the present state of affairs; he has agency and choice, whereas the cup will remain a cup until broken.  In waiting, the waiter wears the self of “waiter” like a glove, emphasizing the waiter’s qualities and identity over his own, and so is he constructed essentially in the observer’s mind (for, as we discussed last week, “essence” is a contingent, assigned, and incomplete reading of the world, a mental construct encompassing some, but not all, qualities of a posited thing).  The waiter is in bad faith, for he presents himself to himself and others as, is perceived as, and is (for a time) essentially constructed as something less than his whole—that is, a waiter.  And no label or posited “essence,” not even his name, can conjure up to himself or others the whole of his potential:  what he has been, can be, and will be.  Others’ ideas of him are incomplete, whether their ideas are labeled “waiter,” “friend,” “son,” “father,” or anything else; even his own self-concept can’t encompass his entirety.  This is an artifact of a mind that can see and deal with only parts of reality, organized and metaphorically represented in a posited, simplified world that we perceive; I don’t see any way to avoid it, and so I see no reason why it should be a problem.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Essence and Responsibility [4/11/17: Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, Freedom and Responsibility, and “A Sketch of a Phenomenological Theory”]

            I like Sartre, and agree with most of what he says, which makes this post a tad difficult; because I don’t just want to recapitulate everything he writes.  Fortunately, a few of his assertions don’t sit entirely well with me, so I’ll discuss those.  First comes Sartre’s belief that, as there is no inherent meaning, or essence, to humanity, each actor embodies and creates that essence, and, thus, what a human ought to be, by zir performance.  The issue I take with this, I suppose, is the prescription that any human is a human first, and, thus, all action prescribes what a human ought to do in a given situation.  But an actor—I’ll use myself as an example—is not merely human.
            Indulge me for a moment.  If essence is definition, then no essence can encompass the thing entire; rather, it includes only those characteristics essential to the defined thing.  A paper knife made of bronze, or iron, or tin, or some gem, with handle of wood, or rubber, or none at all, ornate or simple, forged or beaten, is still a paper knife.  These other characteristics can vary because they aren’t those essential to the idea of “paper knife”; really, the only essential characteristic is that it cuts paper.  And I’d argue that essences are contested, assigned, and not inherent, because different observers (different makers-of-meaning-in-the-world) may consider different characteristics essential to the thing.  What’s the difference between a grilled cheese and a melt?  Some meaning-makers will tell you that there is no difference, that they’re different names for the same essence.  Others will tell you that, if the sandwich contains only cheese, it’s a grilled cheese, and, if it contains anything more, it’s a melt.  These meaning-makers consider different sandwich characteristics essential to the thing they speak of; but neither is “right” in that their meaning is endorsed by facticity.  These different essence-definitions are just different ways of understanding the world.
            To return, then, to my question regarding Sartre’s “what is better for one must be better for all,” I am a human.  I have the essential characteristics; I think and perceive, I’m made of meat, bone, and blood, I talk, I have two arms and legs, and I’m the product of, and, in principle, a contributor to a breeding population of organisms like myself.  Of course, the degree to which each of these characteristics is essential is contestable; because, for sure, a human without legs, or who doesn’t talk, or is sterile, or, many will say, who doesn’t think is certainly still a human.  Breezing past that thicket of thorns, though, I certainly have characteristics that are not essential to humanity.  I speak English, I have tan-ish skin, dark eyes, and dark hair, I’m about 6’2”, I run, read, and write for enjoyment, I live in Tempe, AZ, I’m biologically and psychologically male, I was born to these two humans in such-and-such situation and not to some others somewhere else…in short, I am not merely a human, in that those characteristics essential to “human” match, but do not fully describe, me.  In totality, I am a sort of creature of which there is only one:  that is, myself.  Thus, I don’t see why my choices should create prescription for beings that share some, rather than all, characteristics with me; is the capacity for reflection, and nothing else, the only important characteristic?  I don’t think so.  So why am I the model for diverse humanity?  Why ought I act as though others, who differ from me, should act as I do?  Surely those differences in situation, personality, desires, etc. can result in different action without any ontological problem.  More prosaically, I refuse to assume that what is better for me, or, rather, what I like better, is better for all.  One thing is as good as another, and I will choose; but I will not claim that my choice is right.
            My other question, and I’ll keep this brief, is with Sartre’s total responsibility for even emotions.  I admit, Sartre’s claims play into my personal bias; my habit is to attribute everything I dislike in my life, and many things that I do like, to myself.  I see no reason one should be able to evade decision by claiming it was made outside oneself.  Even in a deterministic universe, the actor still acts; though the choice be predetermined, the actor still chooses.  I’ve spoken before about my distinction between intellectual and visceral beliefs, which must, I feel be the constituents of perspective (which, in turn, determines emotional response); and I’ll say simply that I’ve never succeeded in deliberately shifting my visceral beliefs, which I feel to be the more important in determination of perspective, through instantaneous effort or through concerted action.  This does not mean it’s impossible; I suspect Sartre would simply say that I’m responsible for my failure to shift perspectives, if it comes to that.  I just tend to be wary of my tendency toward declaring myself utterly responsible, both out of fear of diminishing others and in shying away from the awareness that I am the agent of my own self-determined sins.  Sartre, I suppose, would say that I need to accept that responsibility and live with it.

Friday, April 7, 2017

I'm terrible; therefore, I am [Heidegger on Death and Philosophizing, 4/4/17]

            I’ll post this, against my better judgment, because I think it’s probably the most authentic (in the general sense, not the Heidegger sense) engagement I’m going to find with the text.  I wrote this immediately after class on Tuesday, class events, in combination with some external factors, having put me into an…unusual state of mind.

            I am sorry for having little useful to contribute tonight.  I am sorry for ever thinking that I do have something useful to contribute.  I am sorry for what I am.  And I am sorry for how maudlin and self-pitying this post will be, and for not being, right now, the better version of myself that wrote some of my earlier posts.  I fear death far less than I fear intimacy; for I fear that one intimate with me will learn to despise me as I despise myself (sometimes).  Why should the reflective life be more worthwhile than the unreflective one, Heidegger?  It’s arrogant to presume myself reflective, but I do nonetheless; and all that acute self-awareness has brought me is an acute awareness of my failings, a tide of self-doubt and vitriol ready to overtake and cripple me at the slightest opportunity.  Reflection has brought me a fear of others, of judgment, and of myself.  I know why I am miserable, and that knowledge makes me more miserable; because I know that it’s my own fault.
            Should I separate myself from “their” expectations of what I should be?  From “their” influences upon what I am?  There is no self without relation to others and to the world; da-sein is being in the world, being with others.  There is no monadic individual.  What, then, is Heidegger’s authenticity?  Embrace of everything?  Retreat into nothing?  What, in practice, does that mean, and why should I desire it?  I will not sneer at “society,” at “non-deep thinkers”; at least they care about something, “distraction,” “idle talk,” or no.  I will not pretend that my yammering is somehow deeper than a back-and-forth about the weather, nor will I reduce anyone to a faceless avatar of an idealized, thoughtless “they.”  I will no more blame a relatively unsophisticatedly constructed idea of groupthink for everything wrong with my life or with society than I will declare it the normative best.  I believe that people are kinder, more thoughtful, more caring, and more self-justified than critique tends to give them credit for; I believe that callousness, pain, suffering, and cruelty arise more from honest well-meaning, scarcity, incommensurable goods, and people imperfectly trying to muddle through this imperfect world than from “the system,” people “not thinking” or being “irrational” (as if rationality is either attainable or desirable), or from some nefariously constructed “society.”  I am an elitist who hates elitism.  I am a callous jerk who wants everyone to be kind.  I am a skeptic who admires faith.  Now do you see how I loathe myself?
            If angst points me toward my true self, then I’m really quite awful.  I’d rather think that I am more than what angst indicates, so that I can maybe live with myself.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

I’m not right [3/21/17: de Unamuno’s The Tragic Sense of Life; Heidegger with some being]

            I love Miguel de Unamuno, because he cleanly and elegantly expresses some ideas pretty core to my own worldview.  “Whoever . . . thinks he bases his conduct . . . on a dogma or theoretical principle which he deems incontrovertible, runs the risk of becoming a fanatic; moreover, the moment this dogma shows . . . any weakness, he finds the morality based on it giving way” (Solomon, 158).  What I can say but that I agree?  In my estimation, any ideology expressed in its extreme tends toward nonsense at best and atrocity at worst.  Utter certitude, indubitable justification—these are false gods, false lights, their illusory aegis used to justify behavior running against the basics of human decency.  Yes, we have, at long last, drilled down through my intellectual waffling to some of my visceral beliefs.  I mistrust zealotry, for I know that even the most seemingly immovable certainties cannot be proven, but can be overturned; I think it better to operate contingently, with humility and sentiment, rather than claiming to have ultimate justification for one’s thoughts, values, or actions.  I care about people—not because it’s inherently right to do so, for how could I prove or demonstrate that?--but just because I do.  I like humans, due to biology, or acculturation, or some combination of those two factors.  Really, it doesn’t really matter why.  It’s what I’m going to do, and there’s not much I can do about it, “justified” or no.
            I do believe that systems of morality tend to be ex post facto attempts to justify our actions; mine certainly is.  My morality is almost entirely constructed around identifying the things I already care about as good, and most of what I already do as okay.  I see little evidence of much else in others; and in true converts to new moralities, I see most commonly aggressive judgment and patronization.  I mistrust anything that leads someone to hold their own cares, values, actions, ideas, or self above another; I see this as the path to dehumanizing others, to refusal of empathy, to judgment, and to cruelty.  Who am I do say what someone else does is wrong in some universal sense?  I will fight action and happenings that threaten the things I care about, but I won’t claim to be any better or worse than anyone else for doing so, won’t claim to be somehow inherently right.  That’s imperialism, paternalism, Kipling with the White Man’s Burden.  “I’m better than you, my way of living is more correct than yours, so you should be like me.”  I find it revolting, arrogant beyond measure, pretending to some god’s-eye understanding of an inscrutable and indifferent universe.  And again, I’m not inherently right to feel that; but it’s how I feel, and it’s what I’m going to act on.
            This might sound a bit hypocritical.  I know I’m prone to grand, generalizing statements about the nature of the universe, even if the statement is “Nobody can really know anything about the universe.”  Perhaps I fear and mistrust arrogance because I am arrogant, after my own fashion.  This is a quiet mood, a soft one, at odds, perhaps, with the persona I live in hopes of provoking discussion.  A moderate mood, rather than one to indulge the high flights of my more ridiculous ideas.  I am a creature “of opposites . . . of contradiction and quarrel . . . a man who says one thing with his heart and the opposite with his head” (Solomon, 157).  You see why I cling to Unamuno, how I use him to validate myself?  I’m not the epitome of what I value, not of any of the contradictory, incommensurable things I care about.  I do not agree with myself, as, I think, is best.  Should I ever convince myself to fully believe, without doubt or reservation, in a program (even that of radical relativism), I fear I should be obliged to atrocity or apathy.

            I’ve mumbled long enough already, so I’ll keep my thoughts on Heidegger brief; but, in short, I’m not convinced that his insights require his ontology, nor that they can even be generated within it.  I’ll not pretend to fully understand him—for instance, I’m not sure whether he’s making a claim to absolute truth, a rather important question, in my scheme—but it seems to me that a construction of groupthink and abdication of agency to the overarching “they” requires assumption of rather more than just the self-reflective individual.  Nor do I see why agency should be more authentic than conformity, nor why angst and anxiety should reveal it.  It seems tautological, I suppose, to propose that one is all of one’s possibilities and then conclude that denying them is inauthentic; nor do I find it sensible to reject ideation of multiple worlds and then claim that authenticity is existing in more than the present one.  Perhaps I’m just blinded by the writing style, but for now, I’m just unsure of the utility of Heidegger’s ontology.  Does it allow us to understand ourselves and one another better?  It hasn’t revealed anything so far that can’t be reached more easily from elsewhere.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Paradox results from faulty presuppositions [3/14/17: Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, and “The Grand Inquisitor,” from The Brothers Karamazov]

            I find Dostoevsky strange, because I think that he simultaneously states and misses the point.  In Notes from Underground, he purports to take the rationalist (not in the Randian, but in the general sense) myth—that the almighty power of science will, one day, fully explain everything, including human behavior—very seriously, but concludes that, since rationalism doesn’t take human whims or spite into account, the utopian, rationalist project will fail.  The obvious rationalist rejoinder is that, if science and logic have truly gained the power to fully explain, and, thus, fully predict human behavior, such whim and spite will be anticipated, and we will all live in the same inevitable, prescient reality of perfect knowledge as Laplace’s Demon.  Dostoevsky’s argument then replies that reflection upon and rebellion against that determinism will lead people to take another path, which rationalism replies it will have already predicted, and the argument continues ad infinitum.  It is irresolvable—an intolerable logical state.  This is not because human action is paradoxical (the whole point of a paradox is that it’s impossible), but because the argument’s premises, Dostoevsky’s premises, are flawed.  That is, human “best interests” cannot be universally and permanently defined, and therefore cannot be subjected to rational inquiry; full knowledge of the universe is impossible; and humans do not make decisions “rationally,” making prediction based upon comparison of interests futile.
            I won’t blunder into the whole argument right now (I’ll save it for my term paper), but suffice to say that “best interests” are not a thing.  They are not one monolithic, universal thing that is the same for everyone.  I might think my “best interests” consist of trying to be a writer, because it’ll let me do what I love, but I might think that some of my other “best interests” consist of becoming an engineer, because it’ll probably net me a solid livelihood (along with, possibly, despondence and self-loathing, but at least I’d be well-off and sad).  Neither is inherently right, so reason alone cannot determine what I should do.  Rational models of decision-making can’t predict action, because rational decision-making doesn’t happen.  It is impossible.  We don’t do things by comparing predicted futures for comparative advantage, but rather by working off of our experience for pattern recognition, habit, self-definition, and context.  Thus, I don’t need to default to some nebulous “spite” or “whim” to explain why people will always act against “their best interests”; no, this will always happen because “best interests” are subjective, contested, and don’t actually exist.

            I’m afraid I have a similar objection to “The Grand Inquisitor.”  Freedom or happiness?  It’s a false binary, as our wonderful presenters pointed out, and as most binaries are.  It is, in fact, especially false; for freedom may or may not exist, cannot be eliminated if it does, and can’t be created if it doesn’t; and happiness is a subjective, contested meaning projected onto reality by our limited, sentimental minds.  This is not an indictment; limitation is necessary, sentimentality is awesome, and I need to believe in freedom for my own sanity.  But if we start talking about these things as actualities, we need to define those actualities, which quickly proves impossible to ultimately do.  Unsure what I mean?  Let me try to clarify.
            On the one hand, there’s the possibility that everything that happens, and I mean everything—the thoughts in my head, what I “choose” to type, every hand dealt in every casino in the world—is the inevitable consequence of the universe unfolding according to certain laws from conditions at the beginning of time (that’s the determinism of Laplace’s Demon, alluded to above).  On the other hand, it’s possible that we’ve the power to create multiple possible futures, a power that can be bounded and limited, but not taken away entirely.  I can’t surrender my agency, over my thoughts, over my responses and desires, entirely to another.  On some level, I’ve still got to choose to do anything at all.  Lop off my limbs and throw me in a river, and I still get to choose how hard I struggle before I drown.  Raise some children according to a massive and strict body of laws, and those kids still determine the length of their stride, how hard they work, and, of course, whether to accept that prescription at all.  If you’ve free will, even doing nothing at all creates a different future (than the ones in which you did something).  Thus, it doesn’t really make sense to speak of surrendering free will; either it doesn’t exist, in which case, you can’t really get rid of it, or you can accept limitations on it, but not eliminate it.
            Happiness, meanwhile?  You can’t define happiness, not entirely.  You can define parts of it—the absence of suffering, general contentment, etc., but such definitions are contestable and incomplete.  Without full and all-encompassing definition, you can’t formulize happiness; you can only feel it.  You certainly can’t guarantee it via surrender of some modicum of agency, though, for me, surrendering some agency (enough to function in a society, at the very least) is a necessary prerequisite to happiness.  Regardless, as our presenters indicated, formulized, certain happiness is a myth.  With that, I think I’ve rambled on long enough.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Chains and Selflessness [2/28/17: More Nietzsche]

            The idea of a normative, judgmental morality, it seems to me, is predicated upon the imagination of multiple possible worlds; a better, or worse, world, in which different action might have occurred, must be imagined and compared to the one that exists, it seems to me.  I don’t think Nietzsche is making a “no free will” argument, but rather that he’s entirely unconcerned with the question; he’s not saying, necessarily, that the present state of the world is the way things must be, but, rather, disdains preoccupation with the idea that it might be otherwise.  He cares for drives, and the world with which they interact—whether “real” or imagined, he cares not.  And, of course, he sees the first and final drive as the drive, or will, to power.  I suppose that’s the part of Nietzsche I don’t really get.  How does he justify the idea that selfishness is inherent, and selflessness is culturally introjected?
            This returns, to a degree, to my group’s presentation questions:  selflessness might be an illusion, and all that.  Saying, “I want other people to be happy,” still begins with I; it is my sentiment that gives the world meaning, and I please myself by pleasing others.  Yet then, isn’t everyone a “master?”  Doesn’t everyone assign meanings and values to the world, even by accepting those that others offer?  The observer gives the world meaning; but I suppose Nietzsche wants it to be intentional.  Is the actor who mindfully chooses to care for others deluded, in Nietzsche’s scheme?  Or is that another, perfectly valid form of “mastery?”  My intuition tends toward the former:  that “selfish” desire is innate, in Nietzsche’s reading of humanity, and all else is bondage.

            Live each moment as though you had to relive, it, I think Nietzsche means by recurrence:  do not deny, or strain, or suppress, but work toward your desires.  It’s not so much “have no regrets” as some curiously directed version of carpe diem.  I could admire it, perhaps, if it weren’t for the particulars of what Nietzsche advises seizing.  I mean, I’m willing to make the argument that everything is selfish, in that all judgment is contingent upon personal affect and sentiment.  And yet, though I might intellectually argue that, I don’t viscerally believe it (in alignment with my definitions from last week).  Perhaps, to be as generous as possible, I just differ as to the nature of that sentiment.  I am inherently skeptical, I suppose, of schemes which mean to explain or drive human behavior from any sort of first principles, or to fully categorize it.  Nietzsche’s “master-slave” dichotomy is…overly simplistic.  No one is fully “active” or “reactive;” no one can be.  Nietzsche says that some people contain both; I maintain that all do.  Nor am I sure the split is all that useful.  Nietzsche would say, I suppose, that my distaste for complete self-interest is a veil, a delusion binding me into regretful slavery.  Perhaps I’m just too “weak” to be happy without my chains.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Intellectual and visceral beliefs [2/21/17: Nietzsche and the Death of God]

            Nietzsche would have himself or his reader cast off the idea of any possible world save the present; no alternative ideals that might be better or worse, no posited, unobservable, “real world,” and no moral imperatives indemonstrable by appeal to the observable world (that is, all of them).  No valuation but one’s own:  perspective is reality.  Fine, then; but what action does this imply?  All the old moral principles can be justified by replacing some divine mandate with personal valuation.  I like people, so don’t kill them.  I want people to be happy, and want to be happy myself, so do unto others as you’d have them do unto you.  Of course, one does not and cannot develop valuation independently of society and experience in societal milieu, so I can’t help but wonder if this causes the ubermensch project to fall apart.  How is one to know which “passions” are one’s own, and which are imparted by others?  The distinction is meaningless.  We are products of our biology and our experience; it is entirely possible that free will is a myth.  So are we to use whatever passions we have, and care not whence they come?  Well, then, we’re back into the institutions and norms—the “old moral monsters,” as he calls them—that teach us those values.  We’re social animals.  Our state of nature is society; to separate us from it is meaningless.
            Following our class discussion, let me elaborate on something I should never have assumed was implicit.  I roughly, poorly, indistinctly believe in two different kinds of belief.  The one is intellectual:  a truth of reason, proof, demonstration.  It is explicit, for I declare it; and it can be changed if one can show, by appeal to evidence, demonstration, and reason, that it has less basis than another.  The other kind is visceral:  these are truths of the heart, of the flesh, of long experience incarnated as identity.  They are intuitive, only poorly explicable, and mutable only with great effort; for to alter them is to remake the self.  The intellectual belief and the visceral have little conversation; they can contradict one another as freely or more freely than they contradict themselves.
            I believe a great many contradictory things, and believe that I can successfully argue—though I cannot bring myself to believe—a great many more, both within and across the intellectual and visceral spheres.  Still more things do I hold within my intellectual mind as possibilities rather than loci for belief.  Meanwhile, the visceral belief is elusive, difficult to pin down and even harder to express.  This is all to say:  it is no easy task for me to explain what I believe.  In what sphere?  With what weight?  In the intellectual sphere, according to what presuppositions?  In the visceral sphere, in regard to what and who, and when I’m in what mood?  I believe—intellectually—that the universe is a meaningless mass of information (that might have no resemblance at all to my ideas of it, per my last post), and that the very act of assigning meaning to it—even meaning in the sense of “this is a chair” and nothing deeper—is fundamentally wrong-headed, for it elides some data and emphasizes others when no datum is inherently more important than another.  This willful, inevitable wrong-headedness, the construction of shapes of meaning out of the meaningless, is, to me, a wonderful and beautiful thing.  Viscerally, meanwhile, I believe in chairs, and other people, and love, and hope—in fundamental goodness, in beauty, and in the world that I perceive with my raw flesh—and my intellectual justifications are nothing but rationalization.  I’ll sign off with Section 123 of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”; for it helps me to articulate my visceral dream in the face of the immense nothing that is everything.

There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
Oh Earth!  What changes hast thou seen!
There, where the long street roars, hath been
The stillness of the central sea.

The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands;
They melt like mist, the solid lands,
Like clouds, they shape themselves and go.

But in my spirit will I dwell,
And dream my dream, and hold it true;
For though my lips may breathe adieu,
I cannot think the thing farewell.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Embrace the uncertainty. What else is there? [2/14/17: More Kierkegaard]

 Last class thrilled me.  Almost forgot.

           As we move into discussing Kierkegaard’s modes of existence, I think it’s important to return to the epistemic necessity that all models are wrong, but some are useful.  That is:  no finite, limited categorization or means of understanding the universe (as all human endeavors necessarily are) can successfully integrate the nigh-infinite amount of information necessary to describe the universe with perfect accuracy.  Human ignorance is infinite.  We can learn more (provisionally, contingently), but cannot know all.
            I’d like to unpack a few Kierkegaard statements that I find central to the entire argument.  “Truth is,” he says, “. . . is the daring venture of choosing the objective uncertainty with the passion of the infinite” (Solomon, 21).  What, precisely, does this mean?  We’ve discussed objective uncertainty a fair bit, but haven’t bothered to really define it.  What does it mean?  It means what I outlined in my first paragraph:  that human knowledge is, inevitably, contingent, provisional, and dubitable; that repeated interrogation of a claim and its constituent claims must lead, eventually, to presuppositions unjustifiable by reasoned appeal to nature; that, in short, everything is uncertain.  Furthermore, reason and the interrogation of the natural world provide no prescription; reason provides many claims about what is, but none about what should be.  Prescription, that is, the should, must be introduced, arbitrarily, without “reasonable” justification.  Thus, reason can (contingently, provisionally) shed light on what is, and what options in life are available to us, and what might result from those options; but it fundamentally cannot tell us what we should do.  So then, how do we know what to do?

            Well, we don’t.  We don’t know what to do.  We can’t point at some ironclad line of logic beginning from demonstrable descriptive appeals to natural law and say, “This proves that x or y course of action is inherently right.”  No, we choose what to do, and in that choice is Kierkegaard’s truth.  Choice is faith; if not in God, then in one’s own senses, in the idea that one is not living in a pointless hallucination, that the sun will continue to come up tomorrow (though it cannot be logically demonstrated), and that it makes sense to do anything at all in a world that has no logically demonstrable meaning.  “If I can grasp God objectively, I do not,” says Kierkegaard, and moreover, he cannot, need not, “have faith.”  God is unknowable.  The world is unknowable.  Faith is continuing to engage, with God, with reality, with one’s next-door neighbor, in light and in spite of indefatigable uncertainty.  Truth is deciding to take one of the myriad, objectively valueless paths in life, in making meaning of the meaningless.  And, as I’ve said before, I think that’s a thing of beauty.

Friday, February 10, 2017

God could be a nuclear submarine; but who cares? [2/7/17: Part 2 of Camus’s The Fall, Søren Kierkegaard’s “On Becoming a Christian”]

            Hello again, folks.  This one could be a bit messy; but I don’t think it’s possible to fully treat some of the ideas here without, well, writing an extended essay or book.  These are gestures, tags; perhaps I’ll be able to follow through on them in a more extended form later.

            Clamence doesn’t actually want a second chance, because he knows he won’t take it.  He knows he’s still the same egocentric person who didn’t break step at a potential suicide.  That’s why he’s here, at Mexico City, holding court and trying to show everyone that they’re just as bad as him:  so he can feel that none are above him.  It wouldn’t be so necessary if he felt he’d changed or was actively seeking redemption.
            Redemption is, to me, inherently subjective.  It is defined by some observer, perhaps oneself, believing that one has done wrong and must balance the scales or demonstrate change.  It’s a question of belief in identity; and, though we may easily talk about how it’s “inefficient” or “unhealthy” or “illogical,” it is much easier to say these things than to change one’s self-concept at the drop of a hat.  I don’t we can choose our beliefs, at least, not entirely; or we cannot entirely choose the set of possibilities that seem plausible to us.  I believe that Barack Obama was the 44th U.S. President, and that there is such a thing as water, and human life is important; and there’s little that I could do to convince myself otherwise.  To be honest, the idea that one can choose one’s own beliefs seems to me absurd.  Explain depression to me, if, at any point, one can simply say, “I am worthwhile and good, and I enjoy my life,” and simply be done with it.  We may pretend to master our faculties and sentiments, but it is ever a lie.

            I won’t pretend to perfectly understand Kierkegarrd, but I feel confident that he has little time for epistemology.  Nonetheless, I think it’s important to address our class discussion around knowledge of God by means of demonstrating that it doesn’t really matter.  To wit:  you can’t absolutely (indubitably, unquestionably) prove anything.  You can’t prove that God isn’t a nuclear submarine.
            You disagree?  Please, demonstrate from indubitable first principles that God isn’t a nuclear submarine.  Go on, I’ll wait.
            Back so soon?  God can’t be a nuclear submarine because nobody believes he/she/zhe/it is, or because no religion says anything about it?  Well, what does that matter?  Who says human belief has anything to do with the actual shape of the universe?  Please, prove that our words and our books contain any truth at all.  This could all be a hallucination, you know.  You could be dreaming, or in the Matrix, or the victim of some terrible demon (to borrow Descartes’s argument) that is determined to feed you false sensory output at every turn.  You could be an eight-thousand-armed space squid in a coma, imagining all of this.  I might be a particularly talkative figment of your imagination.  God might be a nuclear submarine passing your comatose squid-form in the night.  Absolute knowledge requires the ability to indubitably rule out all alternatives; and, since you can’t prove a negative, you can’t do that.
            It’s the basic solipsistic argument.  You can’t be certain of anything except for your own existence; and, as of such, you can’t be sure you know anything about God (or about potatoes or dump trucks, or the existence of either, for that matter).  All, or nearly all, of our knowledge is contingent or dubitable.  You can’t prove that God exists.  You can’t prove that God doesn’t exist.  And you know what?  It doesn’t matter.
            Because really, why should we aspire to some unachievable certainty?  Do you demand that you be certain you’re not going to trip before you take a step?  That you won’t get food poisoning if you eat something?  That you won’t get in an accident if you drive your car?  Uncertainty is inherent to human affairs.  Forget about absolute theological proof, forget about being right, and just live.

            That’s not to utterly reject all forms of study, of course; everything, or most everything, has utility (contingent, uncertain utility, but that’s no different from everything else).  But the point is that the experience of God, or of life, or of cheeseburgers, is much more important than the (impossible) proof.  Does it matter if one’s religion is actually right or wrong, if it brings happiness and purpose to one’s life, leads one to help and be kind to others, and makes one’s community function?  Is happiness any less real if based upon uncertainty rather than proof?  Life is directed action, and no direction is inherently better than any other; yet we must choose nonetheless.  The alternative is to drift, meaningless, uncaring, as Kierkegaard’s aesthete.  Pick a direction.  Create meaning with your gaze.  Live, and be happy, and understand that your preferences need not the weight of universal law.

Friday, February 3, 2017

I live because living is awesome [1/31/17: Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus" and Part 1 of _The Fall_]

            Welcome back, everybody.  All, like, three of you.  Today, we’re gonna talk about Camus again:  some excerpts from his “The Myth of Sisyphus,” and the first two thirds or so of The Fall.  I’ll focus on the former, as I hope all y’alls got a pretty good estimation of my thoughts on the latter from our presentation this week.

            I admit that I was kind of perplexed by our class discussion on “The Myth of Sisyphus,” because nobody even seemed to mention what I read as the entire point of the essay.  Sisyphus is an allegory, of course--for the Greeks, demonstrating the folly of trying to cheat death, but for Camus, demonstrating something else entirely.  Sisyphus is damned to pursue a pointless task for eternity:  endlessly pushing a boulder up a mountain.  In most versions of the myth, he doesn’t even ever get a break, either because the mountain goes on forever or because he’s got to exert all his strength just to keep the rock from rolling down the hill and crushing him.  With an allegorical agenda in mind, then, it doesn’t make much sense to me to speak of Sisyphus without his rock, or any such thing; without the rock, he wouldn’t be anybody we care about.  Sisyphus is “the guy with the rock.”  As a fictional construct, that’s his entire point; his eternal, pointless struggle is what gives his story meaning.
            So, then, what is that meaning?  As I said, for the Greeks, the meaning was, “Death has to happen,” or thereabouts.  Pushing the rock is Sisyphus’s punishment for seeking to defy the natural order.  But Camus…Camus doesn’t read it as a punishment.  “We must imagine Sisyphus happy,” he says.  Why?
            Here’s why:  because Sisyphus is all of us.  All our effort, all our triumphs and travails and petty victories and defeats, accomplish precisely nothing in the grand scope of time.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust; the universe grinds on, indifferent to our little lives.  It may take a decade or a century or a millennium or ten, but all we do will be forgotten—and that’s if we assume that it ever meant anything to begin with (which I don’t; or, at least, it means nothing inherently).  In light of that, we’ve got two options:  declare that it’s not worth the effort, that is, kill ourselves, or continue to meaninglessly push the meaningless rock.
            Now, I think Camus and I come to the same answer—that is, I’ll keep pushing the rock, not because I think the universe cares, but because I care, and I derive satisfaction from it; but the character of that satisfaction differs somewhat.  For Camus, it’s defiance; it’s spitting in the face of that indifferent machine that we all live in and are part of, raging, not against the dying of the light, but against the fact that there was never any light to begin with.  Here’s where I break from Camus.  See, I don’t think there’s anything there to defy in the first place.  How can one fight the universe’s indifference?  It will, definitionally, mean nothing.  Besides, it’s not like it’s something to be overcome; it’s nothing.  A blank canvas, not a mountain to climb or an opponent to fell.  Why should the choice to continue living be defiance, or struggle, or war?  Why shouldn’t it be a celebration?
            As I implied last time, I’ve got to get by and feel good about myself without appealing to inherent worth—not because I think I’m inherently less worthwhile than anyone else, but because I don’t think inherent worth exists at all.  I realize that might seem dark, and dismal, but to me, it’s really not.  To me, the act of making meaning, reading it onto the meaningless nothing that is everything, is a thing of beauty; it is the essence of art and creation.  I justify living by the fact that I think living is pretty awesome.  It’s fun, and compelling, and poignant, and bittersweet, at turns—but it’s always wondrous and beautiful, if I have just the courage to embrace it.
            I’ve been suicidal before—just last semester, in fact, though I only once even felt like I could actually do the deed.  Injured and isolated, bereft of my main source of self-esteem (my athletics, because they’re the hardest), I felt not only unloved but unlovable, not only sorrowful but incapable of happiness.  The overwhelming feeling was one of nothingness.  I couldn’t care, and when I could, I almost drowned in a sea of maudlin self-pity and self-hate.  The thing is, though, even in the darkest depths of my despair, when I got up and looked loathing in the mirror five mornings out of every week, when I couldn’t walk past a high place without fantasizing of leaping off, when I felt worthless and alone and undesirable and pathetic, there was still always the potential and the ability to get better.  To find happiness again, to find self-esteem again, to rediscover that I can do what I love, and love what I do.  And, as it turns out, I do.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Anonymous comments now possible

Thanks to some feedback, I've decided to turn on anonymous comments.  Enjoy!

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Eponymous Post [1/24/17: Camus's _The Stranger_]

            Hello, and welcome!  My name isn’t Scrin, but that doesn’t matter.  I read things, say things, and, very rarely, even know things.  I’ve created this blog for a class on existentialism; I’ll be posting responses to the class readings and discussions on a weekly basis.  Come in, say hi, and explain to me why I don’t know what I’m talking about!  This first post discusses Albert Camus’s The Stranger, centering around its lead character (Mersault)’s general lack of affect.

             I don’t think it’s quite fair to say that Mersault lives in a world without meaning; as soon as he admits his (inevitable) care for heat or discomfort, as soon as he presumes to do anything at all, he lives in a world with meaning.  Even if he doesn’t care whether his mother lives or dies, he still recognizes that there’s a mechanistic difference between the two states.  That (admittedly, pedantic) point made, I think it’s fair to say that Mersault places much less value on the items outlined by his perceptual lens than is usual.  If to sympathize is to comprehend another’s emotions, and to empathize is to feel them, I empathize with Mersault heavily.  Therein lies my self-justifying bias; I want to defend Mersault’s worldview, for it has important similarities (and important differences) to my own.
            It might be silly to empathize with the man with no empathy; but, like Mersault, I don’t think anything inherently matters, though I arrived at the point via argument rather than intuition.  Repeated interrogation of any value or claim must lead to an arbitrary, unprovable presupposition.  It goes something like this:

            “Why is Mersault wrong not to grieve over his mother’s death?”
            “Because a son ought to grieve for his parents’ death.”

            “Why should a son grieve?”
            “Because a son should love his parents.”

            “Why should a son love his parents?”
            “Because they gave him life and raised him.”

            “Why does any of that matter?”
            “Because of affection and obligation.”

            “Why do affection and obligation matter?”
            “Because of common decency.”

            “Whence arises common decency?”
            “It’s self-evident.”

            Which it’s not—very few things, possibly one or none, as I’ll outline in a moment, are self-evident.  So, the prescriptive value (the imperative to care about anything at all) that Mersault violates, is, so far as I can tell, arbitrary.  All prescription, and, on some level, all description, is arbitrary.  Even shooting a man, as Mersault does, or a million people, or the entire human race, is not inherently wrong.  But inherence, as I see it, isn’t all that important.
            You see, as far as I can tell, nothing inherently has meaning, and that’s okay; in fact, it’s even beautiful.  I’ll get into why in a bit; but first, to claim that anything has meaning—or that it doesn’t, for that matter—one needs a definition of meaning.  Here’s mine:  meaning is value, both in a descriptive and a prescriptive sense.  It is the quality that makes some characteristic or piece of information among the nearly infinite ones available in the universe relevant; it is the filter and lens that makes some reading or view of the world possible.  Meaning is the difference between a chair and the air around it, or between my two hands, or, to be less physical, between an act of kindness and an act of cruelty—or rather, it is the thing that makes those differences matter.  Meaning shapes the nigh-infinite information within reality into comprehensible and valuable shapes; it filters out the majority to create a bounded, simplified, nearly metaphorical model of reality that the human mind can comprehend.  My mind, at least (I cannot truly know any other), cannot help but assign meaning at all times; for the only alternative is to receive the unfiltered press of everything at once, a situation that I can’t comprehend even in imagination.  With this contextual, contingent definition of meaning in mind, I cannot conceive of inherent meaning.
            I am, at least, a solipsist and, at most, a pyrrhonist; that is, I don’t believe that one can be entirely certain of anything but one’s own existence, and I’m not even certain that I know that.  I believe that any sort of inherent meaning to life or existence would have to be self-evident, indubitable, demonstrable from utterly unquestionable first principles; and since, so far as I can tell, only the present experience of consciousness can be so demonstrated, I, on a very fundamental level, can’t understand the idea of inherent meaning.  Thus, I can’t appeal to the idea of some objective truth to justify adhering to societal norms, upholding a system of morality, eating, breathing, or, really, interacting in any way with a universe that I can’t be completely sure exists.  All things save the aforementioned present experience are dubitable (and, thus, not inherent), and among “all things” are all meanings.  This may seem dire; yet for all this skepticism, I am not a nihilist.
            Because honestly, what does inherence itself matter?  It’s entirely possible that the entirety of my experience is a dream.  My norms and ideals are arbitrary.  So what?  I can justify living my life, eating, sleeping, breathing, pursuing ideals, believing in my morality, on sentiment and affect alone.  I care about my life, and friends, and family, and, in some abstract way, about humanity writ large; I don’t need to be inherently right in doing so.  Yet, because of this, I cannot condemn anyone as inherently wrong.  Mersault does not, inherently, deserve death, because no one inherently deserves anything.  His existence, however, does conflict with that of those around him—most notably, with the Arab, who he kills for no particular reason at all—and so, after a manner, they are incompatible.  I would prefer that he not die, because I like him, and sympathize with him; and yet, I don’t find his death wrong within my own arbitrary moral framework.
            Mersault’s fate is tragic, and regrettable, an emergent effect of a world wherein everything is scarce and peoples’ desires, interests, and freedoms mutually interfere.  It is wrong, according to some moral framings, right, according to others, tragic, according to mine; but independent of all these projections, it simply is.  Whether reading a novel or reading the world, meaning is projected by the observer; like a shadow, assigned meaning throws one’s own characteristics into relief, the familiar seen anew and strange.  To perceive, to read, to name and make and comprehend stories, is to make something of the nothing which is everything.  It is the fundamental act of being; and to me, at least, it’s beautiful.