Archive for the 'Culture' Category

Quick thought re atheism and meaninglessness

14 November 2011

I love the word ‘meaninglessness.’ I love adding ‘ness’ to ‘less’ words. The condition of being without meaning. Reading through this LA Times story about atheists seeking recognition in the US military called up several responses in me. The main focus of the story, Capt. Ryan Jean, apparently felt troubled by the fact that answers on a psych exam such as: No, he does not believe his life has lasting purpose, “won him a trip to the post chaplain, who berated him for his lack of faith.” This led him, and similar experiences have led a few others, to seek official recognition and lay representation and chaplaincy in the military. First let me just say: yes, it is not okay for the military to promote the attempted conversion to Christianity of atheistic service members. If some of these soldiers desire spiritual counsel from people who aren’t affiliated with an organized religion, or if they consider humanism their religion and would like a humanist chaplain, that seems fair enough to me. At the very least it does not seem fair to require them to consult someone who will berate them for not believing in Jesus. Come on.

And yet, before getting to my actual question of interest, I am simultaneously troubled by the need for this statement: “The military does not recognize atheists or humanists as members of an organized religion.” Right, well, that’s because it isn’t. “Fewer than 10,000 of the 1.4 million active-duty members of the armed forces identify themselves as atheists or agnostics. Atheists say many more are hidden among the 285,000 who say they have no religious preference.” (This implies they do have official recognition, doesn’t it?) They’re probably right about the hidden, “closeted” atheists among them. That seems to be true all over the population – secret nonbelievers. I, of course, find this troubling, but I also wonder whether responding with calls to recognize atheism as an organized religion are not… misguided. Atheism is a lack of belief in god(s). I, for example, can be accurately described as an atheist, seeing as I do not believe in a theos. But ‘Atheist’ is also an identity, one which I do not apply to myself. You can describe me as an atheist, but I won’t call myself an Atheist. There are many reasons for this, but one is that I don’t identify with the identity. Some “Atheists” seem to actively believe there is no god. I personally don’t bother making this move. (Some would say this makes of me an Agnostic, which, again, when capitalized seems to imply a philosophical position many people describe as: “I don’t know.” There are reasons for me not to take on this identity, either.)

But additionally, some Atheists seem to make an additional move: to believe the universe (or life, or their own lives, or w/e) is essentially meaningless. Further, given a-theism, given there being no god, this meaningless necessarily follows. Suffice it to say, I don’t agree with this supposedly logical move. (The whole atheism = rationality idea is clearly flawed; the evidence for this is in poorly reasoned atheistic claims made sometimes by some Atheists.) It strikes me as a somewhat reactive negation in light of the strains and styles of Christianity that most offend the atheistically minded. But this is just a sense I get. (My trouble with writing these kinds of posts is that I way too easily get way too distracted by thoughts that are not at all well enough thought out. Forgive me!) So,okay, here’s the point: no god ≠ no meaning. Why not? For one thing, why undercut the human capacity for making meaning? Aren’t we all constantly making meaning for ourselves? Choosing to believe that no god = no meaning is making meaning. Calling this ‘reason’, and relying on reason as a foundation for getting by in the world is making meaning. Who cares whether the meaning is already there? (I don’t understand why we’re so concerned about ‘objectivity,’ and why we think ‘subjectivity’ is so far removed from it.) But additionally: just because you do not believe in an all-powerful meaning-maker, what then makes it correct to deny the lasting meaning you’ve made in my life?

An answer to Harry Percy

21 October 2011

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

So then, says Shakespeare in one of his many sonnets (number 116, as it were), life may be time’s fool, but love is not. Life is time’s fool, and love depends on life (or would Shakespeare’s – or, at least, the lover in this poem’s – metaphysics disagree?), so how, I’d wonder, should love be ever-fixed? Why, one wonders, may love be only love that must never have a stop? I beg to differ. And yet, is this what Shakespeare’s sonnet expresses? True love a la Hollywood? I’d wonder whether Shakespeare weren’t playing with his own plays. I’d wonder whether, were my knowledge of his corpus far more advanced, I might not suss out more hints and references than to Hotspur’s dying breath and Prospero’s magic of choice, and might not see our own impulse to read true love into Shakespearean auto-commentary presciently lampooned. I wonder, too, whether love that is not Time’s fool is not true love unwavering as we might at first be inclined to imagine. Love may not be Time’s fool, but, at least in sonnet 116, love loves Time. And I do, too. Even if it doesn’t exist.

Ordering tacos at Chipotle well

18 September 2011

Chipotle is a formula. Or, at least, that’s how I often used to treat it and similar establishments. Walk in, punch in the variables, eat the results. Try different variables until you discover what works best, then repeat ad infinitum. Of course, it is also an interaction between two or more people (sometimes as many as three people behind the counter help make my tacos, plus one to ring me up, during busy hours), as well as an easy and quick, fairly cheap and delicious meal. I really like Chipotle. But can the brief journey from requesting to consuming crispy tacos be more than a faceless interaction? From my end I know the variables are more complex than simply which food elements to include. I also have to know how best to request what I want so as to get the best taco-bang for my buck. I’ve devised various set phrases so as to best streamline the taco prep time – for the longer it takes, the less likely they’ll remain crunchy, and I’ve even experimented with different ingredients for this reason.

So the variables are also human. I have come to know what sort of expectations arise for most chipotle servers. It’s fair for them to assume that the person on the other side of the counter is going to order a burrito, because most Chipotle customers do. I used to get annoyed when I would say “vegetarian crispy tacos” and at the sound vege- a tortilla would come out of the plastic container. Sometimes there would be a pause: “tacos, right?” and the tortilla would return whence it came. Every so often I’d have to correct, “No, no, tacos, crispy tacos.” I can’t eat gluten, so the fact that I can eat the (corn tortilla) tacos brings me joy (not an understatement), but the fact that I can’t eat the burritos (without feeling rather awful) is something I get sensitive about – this was especially true when I first found out about my gluten intolerance. Now I’m more accustomed to it, but it still sometimes bugs me to be reminded (as I am many times a day) that I can’t eat many of the things I love. I’ve learned some ways of making the reminders sting a little less, or not at all.

To continue with my example, I now say, “crispy tacos [for here], please,” rather than “vegetarian crispy tacos.” Read the rest of this entry »

A quick thought on debating religion

15 September 2011

There’s a new piece for the NY Times’s philosophy blog, “The Stone,” titled, “Beyond ‘New Atheism’“. Therein Gary Gutting focuses primarily on Philip Kitcher’s essay in the recent The Joy of Secularism, which I’ve mentioned previously, as a counterpoint to the Dawkins approach to debating theism from an atheistic standpoint. Refreshingly, Gutting recognizes the value in the Dawkins approach, especially considering the context in which it arose to such insistence and prominence. I’ve been saying for years that though I don’t agree with everything Dawkins et al says, and nor do I always agree with the way he and his ilk say even that with which I do agree, nevertheless I am grateful for their approach, grateful that they are making an actual discussion arise, creating a need for further debate, etc. This is where Kitcher’s argument comes in. I have not yet read The Joy of Secularism, so I only know of Kitcher’s argument from Gutting and James Wood. Gutting, at least, sees Kitcher as picking up where Dawkins leaves off. This sounds good to me. But I want to focus for a moment on my framing of the New Atheists.

Why is my position, that I don’t always agree but appreciate their project nevertheless, so seldom reached in other contexts? For example, with regard to religious belief, Gutting rightly points out, as oh so many have before him, that “Most believers, however, do not come to religion through philosophical arguments.” Agreed, and philosophical arguments will not, for the most part, sway them. There is too much bound up with the belief to be able to look at it critically. As far as I can tell, Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris, find this very fact to be a major problem, if not the main problem, that they have with religion. Now, their responses do not always do a very good job of moving beyond, “Isn’t this a problem? Yes, it is a problem. Therefore, let’s do away with it,” even if I insist, as I do, that their arguments are not at all limited to that hand-waving. But the problem of identification with belief (belief – one of the weakest of mental facilities) is profound, and it is surely not limited to religious belief – but what other realm of belief is so adamantly and explicitly defended from so much as being challenged? Religious belief is but an example – but a pervasive and immensely significant one.

This says nothing for the truth or value of religious belief/experience. But that is precisely the point. We all hold beliefs about the way the world works, about our relation to it and to each other, and the ways we can navigate between all of this. Most of our beliefs are concrete, unconscious, and probably wrong in one sense or many others. But the more aware we become of those beliefs, the most capable we become of inquiring into the unfolding of our own minds, and of our responsibilities to ourselves and others – and further, the more capable we become of being responsible, of responding. I can argue this position another time. For now I just wanted to question the sense that because belief does not come from philosophical argument, there is nothing to argue about. We can argue that religious belief is valuable in the life of the believer, and to her community, etc, but because this belief becomes a foundation for a worldview the believer will insist upon philosophically (i.e. in terms of ontology and epistemology, etc., even if the philosophy is not very rigorous), it strikes me as dishonest and therefore dangerous to assert that nothing can be said about it, no arguments can be held. (Gutting and Kitcher do not seem to be making that argument, about which fact I am glad.)

Religious belief may be valuable, and may reveal truth (whether about the nature of reality, or about, as Kitcher would have it, social conditions, or something else), but we can respect the experience that leads to and sustains belief, and the experience of belief, while rigorously questioning an ontological position lazily asserted in the wake of that experience. You may have had a profound faith experience that sustains and gives meaning to your life, and no one should want to or try to take that away from you – but it says nothing about the nature of reality, and your ontology does not necessarily follow from it. Why can’t we have this conversation? Why aren’t we encouraging our children to learn how to have this conversation? Why can’t it be that I am challenging your assertion about reality and precisely not your faith?

Aesthetics and cheese: Chihuly

1 September 2011

It’s funny that when it comes to actual cheese (this will be a mainly vegan post, unless you count the beef I have with a certain “artist”) the good stuff is rarely described as cheesy. You don’t have a cheesy cheese platter, or say, after biting into a nice Greek salad, “Oh, it’s really cheesy.” Instead you remark on the qualities of the cheese itself. The cheesiness of grilled cheese is obvious – if it’s a really fine grilled cheese, there are other things to say.

Okay, maybe you would happily describe a really cheesy Greek salad as cheesy. I won’t take this point too far. But anyway it is still true that it’s the happiness that’s important. You might say, for example, “It’s well seasoned, but a bit too cheesy.” (Most people who order Greek salads probably enjoy feta cheese, so this is probably a ridiculous hypothetical. I digress, twice over.)

The point, to get to it, is that I do not like Chihuly. In case you’re not familiar with the name, I’m no longer considering dairy products, but rather the mastermind behind the following:

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…they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God

23 August 2011

The question, then, is why we are so eager to accept earthquakes and other manifestions of our cooling planet’s turbulence as signals relayed to us – individually or as cultures or societies. My facebook news feed is littered at the moment by various interpretations of today’s earthquake on the east coast – most of these comments are casual, some are tongue-in-cheek, and only very few are serious or grave (probably largely because most of my friends on the coast are in New York, where the magnitude was negligible). Nevertheless, it seems to me that even those whose interpretations are jokes on one level or another (“Okay, I’ll go outside!”; “See, I can rattle from an earthquake, too,” says New York; “How could NY have an earthquake when I’m not there?!”) do not question the impulse to interpret the earthquake as a message to one or many humans. (People closer to the epicenter may have feared for their goods or even their lives, or complained about the train delays, or considered this or that nonsense prophecy. Though some people feared they were somehow feeling an aspect of a terrorist attack, this is a different kind of interpretive response than the one I am considering; interpreting what one falsely perceives as an explosion is different than interpreting what one knows to be an earthquake.)

It’s as natural a human impulse as there is – we are, after all, each uniquely affected by external events, even those that affect billions. I may have been too far from the epicenter to feel the ground so much as quiver, and yet I too am implicated – I know people who felt it; I received phone calls; I read facebook status updates and news/blog articles; and then there are all the unperceived co-arisings. But these latter aren’t really worth mentioning in this post, because the focus must be on aspects of experience we can and habitually do instantly interpret. I may think to myself that it might’ve been oddly fun to have felt the earth trembling lightly below my feet in my favorite city – I spent 23 years there and never felt such a thing. I may be grateful there was no major damage, and curious about the people I know who were closer to the center. However, as soon as I locate an intention within the tremors, as soon as I describe what I think the earth or “it” or God was trying to tell me or us, as soon as I wish for some other option to have been chosen than the events as they unfolded (I wish it had shaken more! Why wasn’t I there! It should have been a blackout instead!) – then I have moved beyond responding to an event, and have begun to interpret it.

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Prousting the President

20 August 2011

Strange how a single conversation can change you. Or maybe it only seems that way in retrospect. A year passes and you know you feel differently, but you’re not sure what or why or how, so your mind casts back for something that might give that difference shape: a word, a glance, a touch. I know that after what seemed like a long absence, I had felt my voice returning to me that afternoon with Regina. It remained shaky afterward, subject to distortion. But entering sophomore year I could feel it growing stronger, sturdier, that constant, honest portion of myself, a bridge between my future and my past.
–Barack Obama, Dreams From My Father, 105

I love how, in this and many other moments in his 1995 memoir, Barack Obama shifts in an almost Proustian way between philosophical reflection and felt remembering, merging the two in a somewhat mysterious way into a vision that doubts and doubles, and thereby redoubles, itself. He says, in a similar moment 33 pages later, “Maybe it made no difference. Maybe by this time I was already committed [...] or maybe [...]. I don’t know.” And yet, this admission of ignorance in the great matrix of an unfolding life does not stop him from telling a story. That the story is not only necessarily, but quite admittedly, something of a fiction, does not render is any less true. A true fiction. The lives we lead – and the stories by which we understand those lives to have been led, by which we write coherence from the raw materials of memory, feeling, belief and values (much of which remains hidden from us) – are never only what they seem at any given moment to be, to have been, to be becoming. We can read a memoir with a sneaking recognition that many of the names have been changed, that much of the dialogue has been approximated, that some of the apparent facts are false memories or outright inventions of the authorial voice; but do we remember, moment after moment, thread after thread, that the very impulse to narrate is a fiction? Perhaps a necessary fiction, a true fiction – or at least convenient.

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“For inferior who is free?”

28 July 2011

When I saw “Tree of Life” a few weeks ago, I also saw a trailer for the upcoming film “Another Earth,” which, frankly, looked like it would be lovely and disappointing. I understand why the producers of that film would want to tell viewers of ToL about it, though. I’ll leave it to you to read about it if you so wish, but here’s a quote from Ebert’s review that strikes a chord with my current meditations: “In one sense, nothing in our lives was necessary. In another sense, everything was inevitable.” In my recent trip to the periodical room, I scanned through a few articles in Philosophy and Literature. It was a nice quick trip through current thoughts on Nietzsche and fiction, etc. One piece, by Evan Horowitz, is titled “Narrative Accidents and Literary Miracles,” and opens with a juxtaposition – a horrific train accident killing dozens of people and injuring even more, against a single Dickensian villain, in an act of random justice, being torn to pieces by a passing train. I won’t go into the article itself, but will just offer a quick question concerning both Horowitz’s juxtaposition and Ebert’s description of life as inspired by “Another Earth” (which reminds one of Merleau-Ponty’s formulation in Cézanne’s Doubt of the two things we can say about freedom: that we are never determined, and that we never change): In a horrific accident or event, such as a plane crash or the recent terrorist mass murder in Norway – which rightly inspires, in those who did not lose anyone, sympathy for the dead and injured and those who did lose loved ones, as well as a feeling of dread and sadness and of being implicated in the possibility either (a) for accidents to befall any of us or any of our loved ones at any time, or (b) for people to commit atrocities – is it not also worth reflecting on the extent to which the life or lives of one or several people directly affected by the tragedy may have been positively influenced by it? Is it not possible for someone’s life to have been saved by a terrible accident or attack, that someone’s abuser was removed from their life, or that someone’s own life filled with suffering and depression, was mercifully (even if mercy was not intended) taken for them?

This seems like an interesting thought experiment. It’s often hard to get outside of whatever powerful feeling is first triggered by an event like the Norway attacks, but it’s also often helpful to, in order to better understand what’s going on within that feeling, what’s being responded to, the value of it, etc. Getting outside of it without attempting to get outside of feeling itself. I.e., I’m not suggesting taking on an analytic pose to pretend a distance between ourselves and our feelings in order to reflect on them. I’m just suggesting exploring different felt responses, or their possibility, to take a trip through feeling like we often do through thought, to better reflect from within our felt space. We can read the philosophical arguments of positions we disagree with, or think ourselves to disagree with, and be convinced by them, or at least challenged sufficiently for the ground beneath our worldview to shift or become more mutable. This seems to me deeply tied to feeling already, but we can focus our attention on the mental aspect (as often we do). Why not shift our focus to feeling?

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Periodical – and what’s creepy about the Jetsons

21 July 2011

I am currently sitting in the Periodicals Room in Harvard’s largest library, Widener. It’s a nice place. Lots of books, & c. What struck me just now, as I was walking towards the comfy chairs by the window to read Book IV of Paradise Lost, was that there are various journals in here – Philosophy and Literature being the one that caught my eye – that I may gain in a number of senses from reading. Why don’t I spend one or two afternoons per week sitting in here just browsing through journal after journal? Why don’t I make it my business to read what is being written in current issues of publications that call themselves things such as Poetry? (I was in the P section, apparently. A lot of what I love and love reading (about) is in the vicinity of Poetry, in more senses than one.) I think, in fact, that I will try to do this. But I wonder about keeping myself to the task. I’m reading Milton now because it was voted upon and I expect to write about it when I’ve made it a little further in. (Speaking of which, I’ve decided that for future polls, if there is a clear second-place book, it will make it into the ensuing poll – in cases such as our first attempt, none of the poor contenders will return (yet).) I think I’ll just try and find a day that works – Monday or Tuesday perhaps – and make it my business to report on my reading for the day.  In the meantime, any journal suggestions? Any area of interest I should poke my nose into? I won’t make this an actual poll, not knowing what choices to put on offer, but I really would like any and all suggestions.

As for my particular thoughts underneath the willow: it turns out the world below the sky-life of The Jetsons is not a barren nuclear wasteland, but rather a patterned geography of rolling green hills and flat paved ground, the former of which houses birds that no longer fly around because of all the humans crowding the airways (and, presumably, other animals), the latter of which houses the foundations for the sky-scraping buildings we all know and love, and homeless people. The bird shows up in a season three episode, the homeless man in a season one episode. I had always imagined the Jetsons floating cheerily above a planet wrecked by human folly. It turns out to be even creepier: wealth moved up into the sky and left everything else, as it were, for the birds. The laziness of the Jetsons-culture’s lifestyle – three-day work weeks, three hours per day, mostly spent napping – is a vision of the utopia of wealth. Make enough money that you can build up and away from the planet and you know longer have to worry about whatever was left behind. The technology needed for the move is sufficient to take care of daily necessities. You don’t even need the human infrastructure of, say, More’s vision. Maybe I’m reading too much into this – but I think more likely I’m either not reading enough, or I’m just reading somewhat misguidedly. More thinking would have to be done on various specific questions – such as, what does one make of the very long hiatus between seasons 1 and 2 of The Jetsons? – and, more importantly, one would have to actually sit down and watch the whole series to get a better sense what it’s politics was. Etc. I’m not going to do this. Maybe someone already has. Or maybe there’s a dissertation here just waiting to be unleashed.

Sam Harris and me

20 July 2011

I like reading articles and essays by Sam Harris. I’ve met a fair number of people who don’t know who Sam Harris is, but also a fair number of people who are surprised (and something resembling upset) to find out that I actually like the guy’s work. There are exceptions, but most often people who recognize the name react with bulging of the eyes, raising of the eyebrows, or dropping open of the mouth. I am not really sure why Harris inspires the annoyance he does, but I must also admit that, a few years ago, when I first started reading his work, I found this an added bonus. It’s fun to confound people sometimes, no? And not just as, how could anyone like that guy?, but rather, What could it mean that you like that guy? But now that I have gotten rather used to being a Sam Harris defender (or, in other words, someone who defends my mode of interpreting Sam Harris’s work), I’ve found the novelty of surprising people has worn off. This is partly due to my increasing awareness over the years that many of the people who are positively annoyed with me for not dismissing the man have themselves not actually read a word he has written. This is annoying. Furthermore, in my opinion, when people do read what he’s written, they often simplify and dismiss his main arguments. E.g., in his latest project he argues that there can be a scientific basis for morality. This is quite an argument, and ought to (get it?) be taken seriously. I’m all for challenging it to the utmost, to keep it sharp and to find what’s valuable in it, etc. But often the response is, “Okay, Sam, given morally fraught situation X, what’s the right moral answer?” But – Harris has very clearly not claimed to possess a full and complete framework for scientifically answering every moral question. (Nor is he arguing that that would be possible.) He’s arguing for shifting attitudes, for beginning a project, for setting up a foundation. He does say some things are “patently” morally condemnable – but one of the fascinations about his work is to see the extent to which people are unwilling to say this about, e.g., certain practices of the Taliban. I grew to like Sam Harris, as one could suspect from some of my previous posts, due in part to his willingness to take a stand.

Here’s a recent article by him about “drugs.” Whether you’ve never heard of him or read his work, or have read and enjoyed or detested it, this is a worthwhile read. It’s a forthright, reasonable discussion of psychedelics, “spiritual” experience (which Harris takes to be an undeniable aspect of human being), and drug policy, among other related questions. Ordinarily I’d want to write more about this particular piece, or some way I’ve been thinking about its subject matter, or & c., but in this case I think I’ll just leave it at that. I’ve been reading Milton and quite enjoying it, but I’ll hold off commenting until I’m at least halfway through. Otherwise I’ve had no mind-ventures worth noting here, or, at least, none that I can think of at the moment. I guess I’m just curious to see how people respond to Harris’s article, and the fact of my posting it here.