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.