May 17, 2010

Over at Andrew Sullivan’s blog there is a discussion going concerning atheism and the fear of death that I’ve been really fascinated by. Andrew set the whole thing off by asking Kevin Drum, who describes himself as an atheist, what he thinks happens when we die, and how he deals with that emotionally. Drum, and many, many other readers, responded that they think we die, full stop, and that they deal with that (mostly) just fine. Not that they’re exactly happy with it, of course. Most emphasized the importance of this life and over each individual moment; others argued that immortality was either incoherent, wishful thinking, or something that we shouldn’t really desire – an interminable boredom, for instance.

It’s surely a matter of temperament, but I find myself so wholly obsessed with the idea of death that at times it seems to me that nothing else really matters. In a way it’s pathological. It’s what attracts me to literature and philosophy, the attempt to do battle with death, to find a way around it, to face it down, look it at squarely, get our heads around it. Several of Sullivan’s readers have quoted the famous line: “to philosophize is to learn how to die,” and I’m sympathetic to that. So I thought I’d try to organize my rather scattered and disjointed thoughts regarding death and the afterlife, since I find myself in such a radically different place from Sullivan’s readers (and to some extent from Sullivan himself).

Unlike Sullivan’s readers, I find the idea of oblivion devastating. It isn’t just that it means I, as a conscious being, will cease to exist (a concept I find almost impossible to even grasp), and that all my friends and loved ones will one day face the same end. It isn’t only that it renders meaningless the simple banalities we comfort ourselves with when we lose a loved one: “they’re looking down on us,” or “they’re in a better place,” or “they’re always with you.” To lose forever, to let go, has never been easy for me. In fact, it’s been downright impossible. But it isn’t only that aspect of death that terrifies me. We don’t need immortality only to salve the wounds of loss.

I think a key aspect of immortality’s appeal (at least to me) is that it makes possible a kind of Justice. I was reading a story the other day about a little boy, five years old, who had recently died of leukemia. Events like these, I have always felt, present a perhaps unanswerable challenge to the notion of a God perfect in love and power. But they are all the more tragic, unbearably so in my case, bereft of any kind of immortality, any further existence, any retribution. Even as they come close to fatally undermining the whole edifice of faith, they seem to make it that much more necessary. It was things like these that gave birth to faith in the first place, I think. There are lives that seem touched from the start by unutterable suffering, and those are the lives that heaven was made for.

Regarding the notions that immortality is absurd, or that it we wouldn’t want it if we could have it, I think those views are mistaken. I’ve always thought this poem captured my vision of the afterlife best:

There is no dusk to be,
There is no dawn that was,
Only there’s now, and now,
And the wind in the grass.

Days I remember of
Now in my heart, are now;
Days that I dream will bloom
White the peach bough.

Dying shall never be
Now in the windy grass;
Now under shooken leaves
Death never was.

I’ve often thought that eternity is the answer to the question “what is the measure of a moment?” People often view immortality as though it were a succession of moments, the way our lives progress when we’re alive, and viewed that way it would seem to be a kind of hell. But I think that eternity is a timeless now, a moment stretched to its limit. I know somewhere in here there is a philosophy of time that needs constructing: I really feel that time itself may be an illusion, and that that realization is the key to the whole thing. I have trouble formulating it in a way that makes sense even to myself, but somehow I think that if we realized that each moment of our lives was infinite, we’d somehow already be living forever. Kind of a Buddhist thought, that. All our joy would be eternal: I have often felt, for fleeting moments, a kind of delirious happiness, as though my life were, for that instant, limitless and timeless. I think immortality would be like that. But I think, too, that our suffering might also be with us now and forever, but that, under the aspect of eternity, stretched to endlessness, it might look, and feel, like an ecstatic joy. That the two would be the same thing. And that that’s the answer to suffering in our world. I can’t really describe it. Maybe one day I’ll be able to.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. It’s the kind of thing that keeps me up nights. I haven’t made much headway in making myself clear, or even sensible, but I’ll keep trying.


Is America Hopeless?

November 24, 2009

(Kevin McCoy, wikimedia commons)



This post by economist James K. Galbraith certainly makes me feel that way:

I’m tempted to say that the United States is plainly unable to cope with the economic crisis in a serious way. The barriers are philosophical, procedural, and constitutional…

Technically it would have been fairly easy, 10 months ago, to get this bus back on the road. There could have been open-ended fiscal assistance to stop the budget hemorrhage of the states and cities. There could have been a jobs program and effective foreclosure relief. There could have been a payroll tax holiday. There could have been a strategy for sustained massive effort on infrastructure, energy and climate. There could have been prompt corrective action to resolve, instead of coddle, the worst of the banks.

Unfortunately, our government is more or less perfectly designed to kill any kind of ambitious economic agenda, and so we’re stuck with ten percent unemployment for the foreseeable future. How infuriating is that? Very infuriating, especially for a recent college graduate like me, struggling to find a job. And I’m not the only GW graduate with that problem, either...

But the most deeply frustrating thing of all, at least from a political standpoint, is that an ambitious job-creating agenda like the one outlined above would be sound politics. Regardless of how much the Republicans would scream and the media would run damaging stories about such ‘fiscal recklessness,’ only one thing is really determinative of political success at the end of the day: economic performance. Okay, it’s not the only thing, but it’s sure as hell the main thing. If the jobs picture turns around, Democrats won’t have to worry in 2010. If it doesn’t, they will. Simple as that. The broader point is that sound policy = sound politics, and that cable news should be ignored. Not many people follow politics all that closely, but they sure as hell keep a close watch on their own employment and how much money is in their pockets.

So I’ve been working for a while now on trying to put together my grad school applications, and one of the sticking points has been the so-called “personal statement,” wherein I detail my glorious past history of philosophical achievement and my future research interests. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what to say (and say concisely – these things are supposed to be like 300 words) and it’s been kind of a struggle so far. But it’s gotten me thinking: what in the world of philosophy am I really, truly, interested in? Philosophy is such a broad and variegated discipline that it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I want to study; the truth is, I basically want to study everything.

However, I think I’ve found a unifying principle to work with, one that brings all the disparate elements of analytic philosophy together: naturalism. What I’m really interested in is naturalism, or the naturalist project. (But not the nudist variety of naturalism!) It seems to me that philosophy in the 20th century has had one central goal, though often unstated, and that goal is to tie together the loose ends of the physicalist world-picture, to naturalize the world, to finally chase the mystical, the “spooky,” and the immaterial out of the world and put everything on a solid physical foundation. The battlefields of this struggle have been meaning (how do words and mental symbols ‘mean’ anything? What is the nature of ‘meaning’?), the ontology of the mind, the nature of ethical and aesthetic claims and of truth, and the (non)existence of God. How do we fit these (and other) phenomena into the picture of the world that natural science has established over the past 500 years? Is it possible? And if not, what then? And if so, what then?

Nietzsche said somewhere that God has simply moved from the realm of religion into other places, like ethics, art, and politics. Analytic philosophy seems to be engaged, unwittingly or not, in trying to chase “Him” (or really, unscientific thinking) out of those places. In so doing, philosophy has been engaged in a long conversation about itself and the very nature of philosophical inquiry – whether it’s necessary or fruitful in a world where empirical inquiry dominates.

This is a picture painted with broad strokes, but I’d argue for its accuracy, even though many philosophers would probably disagree. In any case, it’s what I find fascinating. Particularly ethics: what is the status of ethical claims? Are there such things as ethical facts? If so, what are they like? If not, what then? What impact will the development of modern science, particularly biology, have on our ethical worldview? That kind of stuff interests me and seems important.

I don’t think this would make a good personal statement, though. It’s too much: too bold, too arrogant-sounding. But it does help clarify my own reasons for pursuing philosophy. That’s kind of nice, anyway.

Pain-free Animals

September 24, 2009

Via Andrew Sullivan comes a post on the possiblity that “we may soon be able to make pain-free animals.” The post is actually very interesting and worth reading, though the thrust of it seems badly mistaken to me. In it, the question is asked as to why vegetarians seem to, in general, opposethe creation of pain-free animals, even though it seems that the underlying objection of many vegetarians to eating meat is the suffering caused to animals in the first place. I think most vegetarians (and, like me, vegetarian-sympathetic meat-eaters…hah what a concept) would, when really pressed, cite the suffering of animals as their main concern in the eating of meat and use of animal products (though of course some a vegetarian for environmental reasons, or other reasons entirely.)

I would emphatically oppose the creation of animals that cannot feel pain. I wouldn’t deny that I feel some kind of instinctual revulsion at the idea; I would deny that that knee-jerk revulsion is in any way an indicator of my moral unseriousness. My argument would go as follows. What’s at stake in the animal rights debate, (beyond just the idea of eating meat and encompassing things like allowing animals reasonable living quarters, etc.) is the idea of dignity and a life worth living. One might object that animals can’t possibly live lives with dignity, or that denying them the possiblity of feeling pain could possibly rob them of such dignity, but I would contend just the opposite. Dignity is something not simply (maybe not ever)  inherent; it is often something we bestow. Non-human animals have, I would argue, a right to be treated in a way that respects their inherent worth and long-term interests. By “manufacturing animals” (itself an insane idea) that simply cannot feel pain, we are not freeing them from suffering; rather, we are denying them any worth whatsoever. We are treating them as parts, as nonliving ‘stuff’ to be used as we see fit. We seek to be humane by denying the very possibility of humanity; we make non-human animals unknowable, like viruses, like plastic, something to be ignored, used, disposed of. We shirk our moral responsibility.

There are so many problems here. Non-human animals are so much more than pain (or not-pain) sensing objects. They have interests that include reasonable living quarters, access to decent nutrition and, if possible, stable familial relations. The problem here, as I see it, is that there is nothing that separates humans from other animals in any relevant regard; we simply choose to treat animals like shit. But anything fundamental that a human being would desire, unless convincingly proven otherwise, is something a non-human animal would desire as well. By trying to create animals that don’t feel pain, we’re seeking to break that bond and make animals something else entirely.

Of course, this ‘dignity’ as I’ve definited it is a kind of magical concept. So, of course, is the notion of ‘rights’ or ‘worth,’ but we freely apply those to human beings all the time, even severely impaired humans like the very mentally disabled and infants. In any event, I don’t think it’s something self-serving that makes vegetarians so opposed to the idea of pain-free animals. It’s the idea that animals are some kind of commodity with the minor problem that they are a commodity that can react negatively to human activity. Pain should be a red flag that what we are doing is wrong. Eliminating the possibility of that pain does not free us from responsibility. It only makes us less human, more like the commodities, the meaningless stuff, that we crave so much of.

But Is It Racism?

September 17, 2009

Jimmy Carter has been catching some flack recently for arguing that much of the opposition to Obama has been fueled by racism.

But of course he’s right. Listen:

Joe Wilson’s little ‘you lie’ tirade came in response to Obama pledging that illegal immigrants won’t be able to apply for healthcare under his plan. What is the psychotic fury on the right in regards to illegal immigrants other than blatant racism? I mean, honestly. God forbid they receive any kind of healthcare benefits.

Remember the ‘birthers?’ ‘Nuff said.

How about those insane 9/12 protests? How many confederate flags did you see? How many crazily racist signs? How many non-white people were there? How many, really?

One could go on. It’s frankly pretty scary, and good on Carter, whatever the political repercussions, for calling it what it is. These people are nuts. Sure they went fucking bonkers when Clinton was in office, but the response to Obama is out of control. It’s really scary. And the Republicans and their media cheerleaders like Beck and Hannity should be ashamed of themselves for fomenting violence and perpetuating vile lies. It’s disgusting.

Am I A Strange Loop? (Pt. 1)

September 9, 2009

Just started reading I Am A Strange Loop by the inimitable Douglas Hoftstadter. Disregard the stars the book gets on Amazon; Amazon reviews are written nearly exclusively by children and idiots.

This is the man who wrote one of the most formidable books ever written, Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. He’s the real deal. He is a genius.

Sadly, I would very much prefer Mr. Hofstadter to be wrong about my being a strange loop. More sadly still, he seems awfully convincing.

I wonder where we go from there, once we dispell for all time the myth of the conscious “I.” It’s a question worth pursing, if you ask me. Philosophy should concern itself with how we remake the world once pre-theoretical consciousness has gone the way of the sky-god and the elan-vital. And while we’re at it, we could work on how to work out a world without the sky-god and elan-vital, too.

More to come.

Laborious Day

September 7, 2009

Gotta work Labor Day tomorrow. When the majority of Americans get the day off, what do they do? They drink. And a lot of them drink fine wine. That means Ian is going to be a busy boy tomorrow.

Ah well.

Speaking of labor, this book looks pretty interesting to me. Being the world’s laziest man, I have a strong interest in the notion of the ‘leisure economy.’

Enjoy your day off, rest of the world. I’ll be selling fine wines, working on grad school applications, and hopefully resolving to update this blog more frequently.

Freedom is on the March

August 30, 2009

I’m sorry, but this is the best idea I’ve ever heard.

I Used To Live Here

August 27, 2009

The Mountain Goats never let me down. “Genesis 3:23” is a fantastic song. I can’t wait for the new album. And they’re coming to DC in the fall; I’ll have to go (and find a show buddy – any takers?)

House up in Clearlake
Where I used to live
Picked the lock on the front door
And felt it give

Touch nothing move nothing stand still
Keep my ears open for cars
See how the people here live now
Hope they’re better at it than I was

Ah, nostalgia. Have had a lot of that since moving home. The worst thing is when you realize that the memories you have, the ones with real significance to you, are not shared by any one else. They don’t remember a thing. It’s like it never happened. But as always, I remember it all. I always do.

Not much can make you feel lonelier than that.

Oh well. Tonight’s the wine tasting. We’re taking a tour of Spain. Have I mentioned I have a pretty sweet gig going here?

If only all the Democrats could behave like this man:

(h/t Ezra Klein)