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.