Archive for the 'Death/Life' Category

Higher Purposeless

12 January 2013

‘Atheist,’ ‘agnostic,’ ‘nonbeliever’… You could describe me by any of these terms, but I’ve never been quite satisfied with any of them. ‘Atheist’ and ‘agnostic’ carry such strong connotations; there seems to be a capital-A Atheism these days, to which I don’t feel I belong, and I’ve long associated agnosticism with a kind of waffling, “eh, who knows?” ‘Nonbeliever,’ on the other hand, just feels kind of meh and untrue. I am a nonbeliever in the sense that I don’t subscribe to religious views, but I believe all sorts of things. It strikes me as a bad starting position to call oneself something one manifestly is not. And then you get those Atheists who struggle to accept that they, too, are prone to the occasional magical thinking or unfounded belief, and it’s almost no wonder: if truly a nonbeliever, then how could they be guilty of such things?

Instead, I am starting to suspect that what distinguishes my worldview from religious worldviews is that I lack a sense of higher purpose. I would guess that even ardently religious people find themselves confronted with doubt as to their own private sense of higher purpose, just as I suspect many atheists (and Atheists, too!) actually do have a sense of higher purpose. Not believing in any god or God isn’t really all that important in terms of the way my outlook and beliefs shape my world. It’s that I don’t see a direction to the universe. I don’t see a higher order into which my life fits. I don’t feel the movement of an invisible hand of sorts through my life and history. Read the rest of this entry »

How to craft a parenthood

12 December 2012

From time to time – whether in a work of literature, an overheard conversation, the sentiment of a friend, or etc – one hears the idea repeated: Unless/until you are a parent, you cannot understand. This, though I am not a parent, strikes me as almost indubitably true. Now, I take it to be the case that empathy, if skilled, can indeed help us reach beyond the limitations of our own experiences. That is to say, I think even non-parents can empathize with parents. So there is a tension. I can *understand* the particular feelings a parent might be feeling, but I can’t *understand* something else about the feeling of being a parent, something essential. But there is a different tension I am more interested in: I do understand what it’s like to be a child, and to be a person. (More or less.) The question for me, then, is how to craft a parenthood. If there is something essential about parenthood that I will simply not be able to understand until I am myself a parent, how can I make myself at least somewhat prepared for the shock of that something? I know, as I imagine we all know, ways in which my parents failed me, and I know their failures were in large part due to their unpreparedness. We all wish not to become our parents, but it is our fate to do so nonetheless. How can we at least prepare ourselves to become – not the parents our parents were, but – the parents our parents would have been had they been prepared?

Read the rest of this entry »

Who I am vs. who I will have been

7 December 2012

Yes, I do very much like playing with tenses, but in this case I want to focus more on epistemology than grammar – though the two are, of course, intertwined.

I think memory, knowing, and identity are also intertwined. An integral aspect of WHO I WAS is WHO I KNOW MYSELF TO HAVE BEEN, which itself is in part a function of memory. For the sake of discussion, let’s take it to be that I am someone at this moment. Of course, who I become, say, a year from today, will have been partly determined by the me I am now—but isn’t it also true that who I am now is to be partially determined by who I will remember myself to have been? To put it starkly: if I close this site, in the intervening months, and delete the content of this post, and no one remembers it and nothing ever reminds me of it (all fairly plausible, wouldn’t you think?), won’t I have been no one at all, even though I BE someone now?

We have good reasons to think ourselves constant, stables selves, unique and singular beings with IDENTITY. But we have more and better reasons for doubting this.

Nevertheless, it’s not quite true that I will have been no one, as a faulty memory is just part of the infinite complex of causes and conditions, and can’t retroactively alter them. But the me I am now will also, being perfectly forgotten, never have existed…

Still, this doesn’t make the decisions made by this me any less significant – and won’t have made them so retroactively (so to speak). It just means that a shift in perspective is in order.

Or so I think at the moment.

Reinterpreting the karma/rebirth theory in terms of neuroscientific determinism, or, Another look at déjà vu

8 April 2012

There is so much I wish to cover in this post, and I can only cover all of it unsatisfactorily, so I’ll just jump write in and try not to worry too much about how paltry my efforts will be.

Since I’ve been intrigued and inspired by, broadly, Buddhist thought, I’ve been similarly intrigued by the dual theory of karma and rebirth. The precise theory is framed and conceived of differently in different contexts, but loosely speaking the theory is that action (karma) leads to a rebirth the qualities of which are determined by various qualities of the relevant actions. That is to say, act “well,” be reborn in a “positive” rebirth. For a time I was indifferent to the truth or falsity of this theory. Then for a while I didn’t believe it; then I believed it; then I became indifferent again, but differently than the original indifference. In Intro to Buddhism courses I tried to argue to my skeptical classmates (who were often quite new to this theory other than in the popular “what goes around comes around” version that holds that if you do a nice deed at the beginning of the day, someone might do something nice by day’s end) that it was “not moral.” Why would I say such a thing? Our typical conceptions of morality involve moral guidelines, such as those laid down by a creator god, by which we can judge our actions and by which our actions can be judged. To say that the Buddhist theory of karma is “not moral” is to suggest there is no such outside agent determining which kinds of actions are good and which are bad, but rather just that actions that lead to a rebirth that feels good can be considered “good” and those that lead to an unpleasant rebirth can be considered “bad.” This is not moral so much as it is metaphysical. It “just is that way.” The better in tune one is with how it “just is,” the better one is able to judge which actions are conducive to what we would consider good results. In the meantime, I guess we ought to just follow the Buddha’s guidelines. Something like that.

Now, there is an argument to be made that this is a non-moral theory. But what if the details of my argument were true and the theory were still moral? What might that entail? Perhaps morality is just “how it is” when “how it is” comes into contact with the human mind, human relationships, and human culture. What if morality is just our half-hearted attempt to make sense of how it is?  Read the rest of this entry »

Milky Way and Creation’s Tree of Life cameo

11 July 2011
APOD: A Milky Way Band
Click for the glorious full-size image

I could go on a rant about how NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope is losing its funding, but instead I’d just like to muse briefly on the universe. Look, look at this image of a Milky Way band – that is to say, this is just a segment of the one galaxy we happen to be floating around, which is to say a segment of one out of an estimated 170 billion clusters of an average hundreds of millions of stars each (give or take a few exponents, depending on the specific galaxy), plus dust and rock and dark matter and…

For around 15 minutes in Terrence Malick’s remarkable new film, The Tree of Life, we witness the birth of the cosmos, of our little sun, our much littler planet, and of the life upon it which we so value (and ignore/destroy, &c.) and wish to understand. This does not happen in the beginning of the film, and why should it? Creation, it should also be noted, as manifest by hints of the dust and heat and gas from which everything has sprouted, shows up throughout the film for brief moments, brief meditations, brief, patient, sometimes voiced-over, sometimes silent, appearances. The right words for this vision fail me, at the moment. Curious, though: the above image gives me a sense of my own smallness; The Tree of Life similarly made me feel small; and though both present me with (vastly differently delivered) direct evidence of my ignorance in the face of both all of creation and the mereness of even just my own life and vantage point, nevertheless while the above image inspires in me a sense of wonder, excitement, eagerness, the film inspired pain, pause, sadness. These are not so fiercely opposed as one may, from my phrasing and word choice, at first believe. But nevertheless they are different experiences, and what I’d like to most focus on for a brief moment is the pause.

The image of our section of our home galaxy also gives me pause, but really I just pause to think, with wonderment, how magnificently beyond me creation is. This pause is intellectual. It is the self-consciousness of reflection. The Tree of Life, on the other hand, made me feel as if I had to put my life on pause – not to hit the brakes hard, as if on a locomotive heading towards a gap in the tracks, but to leap off the train altogether and stop. Why? Because of the power of my cluelessness, because of the inertia of it. That I have no clue is not necessarily a problem, but that I often don’t seem much to mind or notice, I think, is. Or, more importantly, perhaps it is not a problem at all. If it is not a problem at all, one might be tempted to say, then what’s the point of pausing? Because I don’t suppose it to be true – therefore, if it is (in any way), I must become capable of learning it. I doubt this is very clear, because it is not very clear to me, and I have not in fact put my life on hold (which seems, actually, a problematic way of pausing, because it implies the knowledge that my life is less valuable than the insights I would gain from separating myself from it – which strikes me as romantic and unnecessary and misguided, &c.), but instead have added the experience to the recent collection of such moments I’ve been having, with myself, in conversation with others, and, now, at the movies.

Go see The Tree of Life, it’s friggin’ beautiful.


28 June 2011

Recently an asteroid came whizzing by the Earth, 30 times closer to us than the moon. It was big enough that it would’ve made it through the atmosphere and landed, leaving a decent sized crater, if it had been on a collision course. What’s remarkable is that this is unremarkable. Which is to say two things: (1) Objects of this size not only fly by fairly often, but are often closer, and actually hit every once in a while (there was a collision in 2008), making this an unremarkable event; and (2) No one cares.

Point (1) makes point (2) more dramatic, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t think we should be running around like a headless chickens because we might get killed by an asteroid. But a little awareness of this possibility seems healthy. Sooner or later, one of the scientists in that NatGeo article explains, a larger one is going to hit us. Will it crash into the ocean, or land? Will that land be remote, or populated? If remote, will it nevertheless have a drastic impact on the environment, causing a natural disaster of one sort or another? Possible. We have the technology and the information to be aware of possibilities like these. We (lay people) should use them. Not in terms of defending ourselves. Rather, we should arm ourselves with awareness. What does it mean that I could be killed by random space junk? This is a question worth asking. Or rather, How do I create meaning out of the fact that I could be killed by random space junk? Random space junk is just one (interesting) of the infinite possibilities. Choosing to go on with life as if we weren’t hurling through space together with an unknown quantity of unguided rock and stuff – once we’ve been given this knowledge – seems, well, a little childish.