Monday, July 20, 2009

Embracing the abyss

We have been engaged in a very interesting debate with a reader in recent days. Put simply, he (we assume it is a he) questioned our assertion that given the meaninglessness of existence, it does not "matter" if one's wife has an affair. In his view, we are being too dogmatic about the meaning of "meaning," and not recognizing the (in his words) "tapestry of personal meaning" we all weave around ourselves. Thus, we are failing to recognize the difference between the universal (which is meaningless) and the personal (which is not, even if said meaning only has relevance to each of us individually).

This is an interesting point, and one which seems to have a great deal of validity. After all, as our reader points out, if you take our position to its logical extreme there is absolutely no difference between spending a weekend skiing in Vail with your supermodel girlfriend (for example) and sitting on a park bench staring vacantly into space. In fact, why bother to get out of bed in the morning at all when you know everything you do is futile, doomed to complete and total irrelevance?

Well...why indeed? As we noted in a recent post, the first decision one must make after recognizing the absurd is whether or not to go on living. But a deeper question is whether one should live for certain "things"--be they other people, material possessions, or certain feelings--or for the sake of living itself. We obviously believe the latter, but this is in fact a much more complicated question than it first appears, with (in our opinion) some very dangerous pitfalls.

For example, our reader referenced Douglas Hofstadter's excellent book "I Am a Strange Loop" as support for his position that the personal is meaningful. Indeed, in the book, Hofstadter, who makes a compelling case for the self being nothing more than a grand and incredibly seductive illusion, nevertheless clings to the memory of his wife (who died unexpectedly of a brain tumor) as meaningful to him. Again, this seems fairly straightforward--why must our embrace of meaninglessness on a universal level preclude feelings and self-created meaning on a personal level?

Basically, our reader draws a sharp distinction between reliance on what he terms "externally-imposed" meaning (e.g., what the church or society says "matters") and "self-created" meaning. In his words: "To accept externally imposed meaning is to subject one's self to the whims and machinations of others. But self-created meaning is a wholly different thing. With self-created meaning, I am the one who chooses. There is no ceding of control here. If anything, there is a taking of control... a stepping up to the task...Self-created meaning is a beautiful thing, because one can make of [it] whatever one chooses. One can cut off the left side of the distribution, so to speak, and tailor the contours of your metaphysical existence however one sees fit."

Well, as Lee Corso might say, "Not so fast, my friend!" The error our reader is making is that by embracing meaning (even as he admits the whole thing is a fraud) he invalidates his entire belief structure. Put simply, if your happiness (or perhaps a better word is contentment) is dependent on external things--even if they are things you choose, and even if you recognize the ultimate absurdity of it all--you are indeed ceding control. How could it be otherwise? Can you really control whether your wife has an affair? If you believe family is all that "matters" (and many people do, even as they profess sympathy for the absurd), what happens if your wife and children are killed in a plane crash? What if they are all stricken with cancer?

More importantly, there is no difference whatsoever in external and self-created meaning. Consider someone who believes the teachings of the Catholic church to be meaningful, and who thus models his behavior around church teachings. While our reader would no doubt place such behavior in the "externally imposed" category of meaning, would the church follower agree? We think not. Just as all parents believe they have an enormous impact on their children, and all children believe they are their "own" people, so everyone believes the things that "matter" to them are important because they chose them. The individual in our example would almost certainly claim to believe in church teachings not because someone told him to, but because he has recognized their validity of his own free accord. Indeed, to turn this around, we would argue that the things our reader views as "meaningful" to him are simply products of his genetic makeup and environment. Put a slightly different way, to believe what our reader proposes you must also believe in the existence of a self, and therefore in something that exists beyond the physical. Otherwise, who is the "I" that "chooses" the things that matter?

Consider the original example, that of one's wife having an affair. We recognize that for most people it is jarring to hear us assert such an event does not matter, but ask yourself why. The answer, for those who choose to find it, is that jealousy (along with other human emotions) is nothing more than a biologically advantageous strategy passed down from our ancestors. Thus, men who were more successful at keeping their wives from mating from other men tended to pass down more genes than those who were less successful. It really is that simple, as Richard Dawkins revealed in his groundbreaking work The Selfish Gene. So...it turns out the reason I am jealous if my wife has an affair (and let's be honest - most people would be) is simple biology and evolution.

But the crux of the matter is the false distinction drawn between externally imposed and self-created meaning, which masquerades as truth, but instead creates self-imposed obstacles to achieving true contentment through acceptance of our fate. In short, in his quixotic quest to create meaning in the face of an uncaring universe, our reader unwittingly denies himself the wondrous experience of embracing the abyss.

45 comments:

  1. Ah! To be continued eh?

    To quote the original Montoya (from Princess Bride): “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

    If you’ll permit, let me now set about straightening out a few more misconceptions in regards to “meaning” and what it means...

    You say I “admit the whole thing is a fraud” – presumably in reference to meaning. I admit no such thing. Self-created meaning is no more a “fraud” then emotions are “fraud.”

    You seem to imply that for meaning to be valid, it has to be eternal – as if impermanence were a disqualifier. Again, this assumption is unjustified. Meaning can be temporary, just as love can be temporary. Again like love, meaning can bubble up with serendipitous circumstance and fade away with time.

    And so I ask you, where is the fraud in this? If I find meaning in a personal experience – and this meaning is wholly created and wholly experience by me – then in what way does my personal experience count as fraud? Do you count love as fraud, considering that no love lasts? Is beauty fraud, considering that no beauty lasts?

    As for happiness or contentment being dependent on external things... again clarification is needed. For one thing, there is a stark difference between temporary reliance and permanent dependence. If I am possessed of a certain circumstance or relationship or thing that makes me happy, then there is no harm in drawing happiness from this thing. The only harm comes if I find myself in dependence on this thing, which is a different matter entirely.

    The operative phrase here could be one used by Clive Owen in Croupier: “Hold on tightly, let go lightly.” There is nothing wrong with holding on tightly – to a relationship, an experience, a happy circumstance – as long as one has mastered the art of letting go lightly as well.

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  2. To continue (in the hopes of clarifying my stance)... I am no prisoner of my passions. My passions serve my intellect, not the other way around. My intellect just happens to be experienced to recognize the truth in the old Chinese saying, “A mind all logic is like a knife all blade.”

    You give the example of a wife and children, and the implied importance of being stoically prepared in the event of plane crash or cancer. You seem to argue that one cannot be attached now, for fear of being hurt by said attachment.

    And so further I say to you – if you genuinely view life in such a way, then that’s a cold way to live. I agree with Tennson in this matter, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never loved at all.”

    And again I emphasize, as I have repeatedly, that there is no necessary contradiction in embracing the personal while remaining in touch with the universal (or as you call it, the absurd). Going back to the plane crash / cancer thing... I do not have children. I am sure that if I ever do have children, I will love them with all my heart. And if I lose them, it will hurt – and that will be as it should be.

    But is this not too absurd? If you could offer me the choice between a stoic life in which no pain is felt and no deep is love felt, versus a life in which great highs and great lows are experienced – the pain of love and the pain of loss – then I would take the second choice every time. It would be a fuller life in my estimation... a more contented life.

    And, even beyond that, I still submit it is wholly possible to “celebrate the meaninglessness of it all” as your slogan puts it while still enjoying the personal meaning infused in day to day things (meaning which needs no validation from any outside source and is thus is in no way a fraud).

    Consider two hearts – the enlightened stoic and the enlightened romantic, both of whom embrace the absurd.

    The enlightened stoic says, “I must put the meaninglessness of all things first and foremost. I must not get too attached, lest I feel pain.” This is roughly akin to building a wall – an iron box to protect the heart from the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

    In contrast, the enlightened romantic says, “Life is suffering as the buddha says. I choose to experience the full range of emotions... to live the fullest life. In doing so, I am not afraid to love and lose. When my heart is wounded, I will not despair. Instead I will remember the absurd... and allow my heart to quickly heal.”

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  3. As for self-created meaning versus externally imposed meaning, I beg to differe. There are some very important differences.

    Two key differences are 1) personal responsibility, and 2) the benefits reaped from figuring something out for one's self.

    In terms of personal responsibility... most people never bother to ask these questions. Because there is no introspection, externally imposed meaning becomes self-created meaning by default. This is not unlike the process in which most people adopt the religious views of their parents. (The most accurate predictor of whether someone is Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, agnostic etc. is the country in which they are born.)

    So the first critical difference between self-created meaning and externally imposed meaning is the sense of personal responsibility that comes with opening one's eyes. It is true that externally imposed meaning becomes self-created meaning by default in most cases. People pick a set of prepackaged worldviews like a box of cereal off a shelf. But this is a bad thing, not a good thing. The awakening process lets the individual realize that an alternative is possible... that self-created meaning is wholly the province of the self-aware individual, not anyone else, and that all forms of externally imposed meaning brought to bear by society or family or friends can be accepted or rejected as one sees fit.

    This then naturally segues into the second important difference, which hinges on the benefits of figuring things out for one's self. The individual who takes the time and trouble to work out "This is what I believe and why" almost always reaps great benefit from such a journey, long and arduous as it may be. This is the journey from existing in a world of others' creation -- a world of externally imposed meaning -- to existing in a world of one's own deliberate creation, in which all accidental or default-setting beliefs are examined and rooted out as need be.

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  4. Last but not least... I am casually amused by the choice of terms here (i.e. "quixotic") and also the casual use of value judgement absolutes.

    Is my quest so quixotic if I am happy and content? Can you really say with confidence that you are more fulfilled and content than I?

    (I only ask because you seem to evince a certain confidence that your metaphysic is superior, again with phrases like "quixotic," "self-imposed obstacles" and "denies"...)

    It's all well and good to compare and contrast value judgments, as long as it is recognized that such a competition is taking place.

    And if that sort of friendly competition is accepted, then I assert that the fast-healing romantic has far better odds of a rich and fulfilled life than the life-fearing stoic... a striving to reduce all potential sources of pain, to the extent of even reducing one's capacity to love family members unreservedly, strikes me as a sort of limiting cowardice in a way.

    Let us remember, too, that if we truly and wholeheartedly embrace the absurd, then all debates as to what is "true" or "correct" fall also in the realm of the absurd! If nothing matters in the universal sense of things, then truth does not matter either, yes? If there is no point to anything, then nor is there any point to winning a debate (let alone a debate o the internet)...

    And that leads to one last area where I find this debate amusing. I embrace the universal, but also make room for the personal -- which means I make room for meaning. Having made room for meaning, however temporary, I am comfortable speaking in terms of value judgment and goals and absolutes.

    But does it not strike you as odd for someone who holds no truck with the personal -- who sees ALL as meaningless, with no room for even temporary embrace -- to be adamant about anything at all? It's a bit like the evangelistic nihilist, firm in his conviction that no one should have any convictions at all...

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  5. Well, apparently we will need to agree to disagree. But a few final points.

    1) Your argument sounds suspiciously like solipsism, as you are essentially saying we each live in our own self-created world in which things have meaning to us and only us.

    2) Your position also requires the existence of a separate "self," otherwise what is the entity choosing what is and is not meaningful?

    3) Your assertion that you can love unreservedly, but also let go easily, strikes us as more than a bit contradictory.

    4) Finally, your whole construct seems to make things more complex than they need to be. Why separate the world into "meaningful" (personal) and "non-meaningful" (universal). Where do you draw the line for self-reflective creatures? Do apes have meaning? Isn't it simpler to accept that none of it matters, rather than carving out this seemingly random and arbitrary exception?

    In essence you are saying that your life, with its self-created meaning, is in some unspecified way richer and fuller than one lacking that meaning. But as we have stated, it is not that we don't enjoy life, but instead that we do not rely on certain things, people, or experiences for our contentment. We live moment to moment, never regretting the past, and never worrying about the future. We humbly submit that such a stance is not compatible with a belief that certain things "matter".

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  6. I hope it’s a friendly disagreement, because I like both you guys and have thoroughly enjoyed the posts, and the discourse, thus far...

    Solipsism, yes! I do like that concept a lot. And you are on the right track there... my personal metaphysic does have more than a touch of solipsism embedded within it.

    This only seems natural to me, given the facts at hand. Consciousness is, and always will be, a wholly personal thing. No conscious being has ever truly shared their consciousness, their essence, with another being, except by very rough approximation. The “I” is forever personal, for each one of us. Barring the dreams of Ray Kurzweil, it will always remain thus.

    Even physics touches on the solipsistic, via the theory of relativity. The reality of space and time depends on one’s personal position within it.

    And so, in a very real sense, each one of us does, in fact, live in our own self-created world! As the buddha said, “with our thoughts, we create our world.” As in many things, ol’ Sid G. was right on the mark.

    Regarding the existence of a separate self... well, sure. This goes back to Hofstadter and Descartes. The “separate self” you speak of is consciousness... the strange loop. Combine Hofstadter with Descartes – “I think, therefore I am” – and what one winds up is the concept of a separate self (hallucination or no) validated by experience.

    I don’t have to engage in arguments as to whether or not the concept of separate self is valid because I experience reality as a separate self – my own self – on a daily basis. To me, debating whether “self” is real is like debating whether “emotions” are real. If one can feel and experience emotions readily, what more proof does one need?

    Re, contradictory notions in loving deeply and letting go easily... YES! Keep going, you are getting warm now!

    What is wisdom if not the ability to handle contrasts? Where things are black and white, wisdom is not required. It is in the shades of gray where wisdom comes to the fore. Knowing when to love and when to let go requires wisdom and fluidity. The fact that it takes practice and contemplation gives a hint as to why it is so valuable.

    One of my favorite symbols is the yin-yang symbol, because it beautifully illustrates how all of life is a study in balance and contrast. In financial markets there is a constant balance between risk and reward. In pursuit of the contented life there is a constant balance between striving and relaxing... seeking out and letting go.

    Or consider the qualities that make for an excellent leader of men. The truly gifted leader knows when to be soft and compassionate... but also when to be hard and ruthless. The gifted leader knows when to press hard and lean on the courage of convictions... and when to let go or call for retreat.

    Again, contrasts. When you really look, yin-yang is everywhere. It is the same, in my view, with the pursuit of happiness via proper balance of the universal and the personal, with the ability to dial up or dial down each as circumstances warrant.

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  7. As for complexity – this accusation puzzles me. In this I wholly agree with Einstein in his suggestion that “things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

    And so I propose (via Einstein’s suggestion) that arguing for one perspective only – the universal – is overly simple, i.e., too simple to adequately explain the situation. It leaves out something important.

    But by going from one thing to two – the universal and the personal – I would hardly call that a leap into mind-numbing complexity.

    As for drawing lines and self-reflective creatures and what not... NOW we are getting complicated. We can talk about apes and starfish and dolphins or what have you, but all of that stuff is ancillary to me.

    My point of reference is consciousness... PERSONAL conciousness. Meaning is an ephemeral personal construct, born of a self-aware consciousness. This is why all meaning is personal. (Shared meaning via society and culture is little more than a grand agglomeration of the personal.)

    But really, this is not all that complicated. Meaning is personal. If an especially intelligent ape were able to perceive reality with a high enough degree of awareness to self reflect and consider things “rich in importance and signficance,” then that ape might be said to have access to meaning as a self-aware being.

    The ape doesn’t matter, though, because self-aware consciousness is the focal point of origin. We know that humans have it, and we are talking about humanity (i.e. you and me and our fellows) in this discussion. I don’t see that as complicated...

    As for saying it’s “simpler” to accept that none of it matters, I would say, let’s go back to Einstein again. It might indeed be “simpler” to say that nothing matters, but it would not be true!

    I know for a fact that there is meaning in my life because I experience it every day. This meaning is self-generated and thus not dependent on external validation or timeframe.

    Therefore, the statement that “none of it matters” is not accurate for me. Speaking on a pragmatic basis, I further suspect it is not wholly accurate for anyone who experiences meaning on any kind of regular basis in their lives.

    That is why I submit to you it is more effective to 1) accept the presence of meaning, however ephemeral, and 2) focus on channeling, directing and otherwise controlling that self-created meaning rather than denying its existence. This goes back to the “hold on tightly, let go lightly” idea. We all hold on to certain things. Even the buddha did. Better, I say, to learn the art of letting go lightly than to pretend the holding doesn’t happen.

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  8. As to your final two sentences:

    “We live moment to moment, never regretting the past, and never worrying about the future. We humbly submit that such a stance is not compatible with a belief that certain things "matter".”

    To the first sentence I say “bravo.” One could nitpick certain hidden assumptions in the unpacking of such a stance, but I will refrain. The ideal is certainly worthy, and one that I more or less share within a certain context.

    The final sentence, though, gives the impression that you still view me as a prisoner in a cage of my own design... forever plugged in to the Matrix of meaning or what have you.

    If it gives you pleasure to view me in this way – as a prisoner -- then by all means, carry on. We all have different motivations for the things we believe.

    But if, perchance, your motivation is to continue exploring and expanding, then I urge you to give further consideration to what I am saying. Again as the buddha said, “with our thoughts, we create our world.” But it is no sad thing to live in a meaning-infused world of one’s own design.

    You see, there is beauty, richness and elegance in meaning -- just as there is in love. There is even richness, beauty and elegance in certain forms of pain. By cultivating a familiarity with the universal and the personal, I am able to travel between two worlds.

    You could say it’s a bit like altitude. The personal is “ground level” – the human experience, front and center, here and now – things that happen to “I”, my intellect, my will, my body, my consciousness.

    The universal, in contrast, is found in the higher realms. To travel from the personal to the universal is like an out of body experience, ascending straight up. At a certain level, the drama of the personal disappears as humans become like ants. Then the earth itself becomes a “pale blue dot” as Carl Sagan so memorably described it. Then the entire milky way becomes little more than a single point of light, a random star in a sea of stars.

    What I submit to you is that true fulfillment, true happiness, comes in the ability to make “altitude adjustments” at will. This allows the individual to fully experienced the richness and significance of a life fully lived – the joys of the personal – while yet having the ability to transcend petty things, indeed, to transcend ALL things, when so desired. It’s the only way to fly... for me anyway.

    Cheers!

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  9. Let me chime in here. To be sure while it somewhat easy to differentiate between self imposed (created?) meaning and externally imposed one at the extremes of the spectrum of meaning of word "meaning". The gray line separating these two extremes is indeed gray. In other word, it does not exist. So, what I am getting at here, is that self created meaning without any interdependence with "external" or other "internal" entities seems rather improbable.

    Also, if I ( not necessarily ego) did not exist then there wouldn't be any conversation about meaning of anything, which also implies impermanence of meaning.

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  10. Anonymous says: "But it is no sad thing to live in a meaning-infused world of one’s own design." I would say it is no sad thing as long you are aware that you're creating/imposing/layering meanings on top of the flow of your life. This is awareness, mindfulness -- you're aware that you've got a mind that's re-arranging reality all the time. If you are unaware that you're doing this, however, before long you'll think all that re-arranging is real, and that's where the trouble starts.

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  11. When we see a beautiful sunset we are happy and we appreciate the sunset. But we are not happy because of the sunset. By imposing the concept of meaning, you are (whether you choose to accept this or not) making yourself reliant on certain things in order to be happy. You are also assuming the existence of some separate "self" that decides what is and is not worthy of "mattering."

    As you say, this is a choice and there is certainly nothing wrong with it. But we do not find it necessary and, as the most recent poster indicated, the process of staying on top of such matters is difficult indeed.

    In our view, human beings are an incredible cosmic accident--the irony of our ability to contemplate our own demise while being powerless to stop it is truly extraordinary. But our self-reflective capacity does not make us any more special than apes, insects, or larvae. (Or, for that matter, shifting sands on the beach.)

    Finally, we are curious. Consider that we are all in fact plugged into the Matrix and do not know it. (This of course cannot be disproved.) Would you still believe in self-created meaning under those circumstances?

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  12. Anonymous 1 here...

    Anonymous 2 said: I would say it is no sad thing as long you are aware that you're creating/imposing/layering meanings on top of the flow of your life. This is awareness, mindfulness -- you're aware that you've got a mind that's re-arranging reality all the time. If you are unaware that you're doing this, however, before long you'll think all that re-arranging is real, and that's where the trouble starts.

    Yes, very well said. This is quite close to what the buddha meant (in my opinion) when he said, “With our thoughts, we create our world,” and accurate in spirit as to what I was attempting to communicate.

    The only quibble I have is with the slightly questionable use of the term “real” in the final sentence. What is “real” vs “not real?” Meaning is an ineffable, intangible thing. But so is a relationship. So are emotions. So is culture.

    I speculate that people get tripped up over “real” versus “not real” because they accidentally conflate “real” with “tangible” – which, in turn, is only a step away from conflating “real” with “eternal.”

    When we recognize that “real” can also include things that are ineffable, intangible and impermanent, it does not become so hard for us to see that one’s own assignments of meaning and significance qualify as “real” for at least a temporary time.

    This is important (to yours truly) because it addresses the other hidden, unspoken notion that to infuse one’s world with self-created meaning is to fool or deceive one’s self. There is no fooling or deceiving taking place at all. On one intellectual level, the enlightened romantic is 100% capable of recognizing that all is temporary, all is impermanent in the end. At the same time, the same individual can choose to infuse self-created meaning in the richness and significance of a thing for the moment, the here and now, accepting that such meaning will only last for a short duration.

    Meaning is no more and no less “real” than the emotions one feels, and is in many ways similarly controllable. I like the emotion parallel too because the ability to control one’s emotions, truly control them, is a hard concept for most folks to grasp. The more typical view is either that 1) emotions cannot be controlled (they control us), or 2) emotions have to be cut off or minimized (reduced in power) for the sake of internal peace. When one gets a handle on the alternative path – not neutering or diminishing one’s emotions, but instead learning to guide and control and direct them, like a magnificently trained horse – one is then closer to intuitively grasping what I am saying about being able to accomplish the same thing in terms of self-created meaning and shaping one’s world.

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  13. Bomstein said:

    When we see a beautiful sunset we are happy and we appreciate the sunset. But we are not happy because of the sunset. By imposing the concept of meaning, you are (whether you choose to accept this or not) making yourself reliant on certain things in order to be happy. You are also assuming the existence of some separate "self" that decides what is and is not worthy of "mattering."

    Earlier you talked about unnecessary complication. I must confess, this seems complicated as heck to me.

    I live in what’s known as a “high desert” region. In the summers, I like to take a trail walk in the first hour after sunrise. This first hour is always as cool and crisp as a late Fall day, even on the hottest days of the year, because the high desert heat gets sucked up into the sky each previous night.

    These trail walks add to my happiness in memory, in present experience, and in future anticipation. The walks have “meaning” to me. They add to my happiness.

    As for all these qualifiers – arguing that I am not made happy “because” of the walk... quibbling over whether I am “relying” on the walk... this strikes me as overweening. The part about existence of a separate self is further complication.

    Such talk seems removed from the zenlike ideal of living in the here and now, and closer to the halls of academia where PhD types skirmish over pointless elements of minutia.

    My walks make me happy. To the extent that I “rely” on them this is not a handicap, any more than I “rely” on one of my favorite restaurants to prepare my steak sandwich just as I like it.

    As for “existence of a separate self...” bah. Where does this burden of proof come from, re, the need to prove the existence of a self? I am HERE. I am CONSCIOUS. I feel what I feel. I remember what I remember. I am with myself always. Why should I have to prove to you or anyone that I exist, and that my consciousness is mine alone? The proprietary nature of consciousness should be so obvious to every individual self-aware being, it seems to me, that I am puzzled by the seeming need to debate it’s existence. It strikes me as akin to debating the existence of feeings.

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  14. Also, re, cosmic accidents and the Matrix and whatnot...

    You are correct – the possibility of being plugged into the Matrix cannot be disproved. In similar spirit, it can neither be definitively proven nor disproven that man is a cosmic accident.

    For all we know, planet earth could be the equivalent of an eighth grade alien science experiment. And said eighth-grader alien conducting the experiment could himself be the result of an experiment... or a quantum fart... again, can’t say. Turtles all the way down.

    But to all that I say, “meh.” To me the universe has one important message. And that message is, “there is no message.” The door at the end of the universe is shut, in such a way that we cannot open it. As long as that remains the case – and it may well remain the case for eternity – the concrete takeaway is that, in the absence of some greater message, we get to write our own script... impose our own self-created meaning.

    As for man’s specialness in relation to apes, insects, and larvae – in saying we are “not any more special” than such, you set forth a value judgment. It is your opinion that man is no more special than these other creatures.

    Someone else might just as well decide, as Hofstadter argued, that there is a sort of sliding scale of consciousness, in which the intrinsic worth of a being increases with the depth and breadth of their consciousness – thus putting mosquitoes near the zero end of the scale, golden retrievers somewhere in the middle, and man at the high end.

    One could further argue that, in some things, words do not count as heavily as deeds. You say that man is not worth more than insect, but is this how you act in your day to day life? If you were presented with a series of choices in which either human lives or chimpanzee or grasshopper lives were put at stake, would you truly demonstrate equanimity in your choices? I doubt it. The worth of a philosophical stance can be assessed in terms of practical value and observed real world correspondence as well as the more abstract measures...

    My point there, though, is not to debate the opinion of intrinsic worth, so much as to point out that what you say in regard to the hierarchical intrinsic value of things, creatures etc. is merely opinion... and opinion is very close to meaning. To say what something is or is not “worth” is, in a way, to assign meaning to that thing (even if it is assigned inversely).

    As for being plugged into the Matrix... why would that make a difference at all? Why would that have any bearing on self-created meaning whatsoever?

    Perhaps it is my own deficiency in finding a way to drive the point home... meaning is tethered to consciousness. As such, I do not have to “prove” that I am conscious. I know that I am awake. I know that I am here. Self-created meaning is of the same nature, proven and validated by its own existence, because it is not dependent on any outside originating or confirming source. If I am conscious, then so be it – I am conscious. It does not matter whether my consciousness resides on planet earth, on an alien world, or in some vat of fluids where my body lies jammed up with hoses that have turned me into a battery. Consciousness is consciousness, whatever its physical seat. The same is true of emotions. Emotions are emotions – to feel an emotion is to verify its existence. The same is true of self-created meaning. And so it matters not whether, physically, I am here or there or even a dream in the mind of an ant. My self-aware existence is enough to power self-created meaning, regardless of any extenuating circumstance...

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  15. p.s. As a rowdy, merry band of accidental philosphers once sang:

    Hey there all you middlemen!
    Throw away your fancy clothes, and while you’re out there sittin’ on a fence...
    So get off your ass and come down here;
    ‘Cause rock and roll, it ain’t no riddle man --
    To me it makes good, good sense...


    Or as another great one exhorted:

    Music is your special friend;
    Dance on fire as it intends;
    When the music’s over, turn out the lights... turn out the lights... turn out the lights...

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  16. It seems to us that thou dost protest too much. In essence, your argument boils down to one of the following:

    1) There is indeed a self separate from the physical body, and this entity has feelings and preferences that have meaning (because they have been so decreed by said entity).

    2) There is no separate self. However, the concept of meaning is so vague and vapid that anything can be said to "matter," so long as a sufficiently complex self-referential creature (which does not actually "exist") says so.

    Or are we missing something?

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  17. This is making my brain hurt.
    Or, am I just imagining it?
    Wait, who is the "I" I am referring too?
    Does this question matter? Wait, what is matter?
    But then again ... ah, screw it.

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  18. It seems to me, as someone who has found this conversation via a facebook link from a friend, that the distinctions being drawn about meaning have a firmer (or maybe I should say more useful) basis for understanding than either of the ones used thus far, the largely metaphysical or the largely biological.

    I have a bias towards understanding how such views affect us operationally, how they affect the way our thoughts and reactions proceed. What is the mechanistic benefit to the individual of adopting a particular worldview? I have absolutely no background in metaphysical training so I have no ability to relate my views to larger traditions.

    Operationally, it seems as if you have been talking about different ‘default’ reactions we may have to events that we perceive. Y’all have been using examples from ‘extreme’ events that may be outside (perhaps far outside) our normal experience, such as cancer, affairs, accidents etc. But interwoven into the conversation are examples from ‘normal’ or ‘typical’ experience including walks, sunsets, etc. A default position may be to react to extreme events more strongly, and normal events more calmly. This is an artificial dichotomy, of course, but I think it will serve to make my point.

    By draining meaning from the worldview, the operational result would be changed so that one reacts to both types of events calmy and evenly. The peace that comes with this can be astounding. But I would maintain that because our interaction with the world occurs continuously and immediately, the peace one experiences with this worldview comes from our consistent form of reaction and not from the means we use to get there. There may be other means, other worldviews, other paths, that can enable one to react to both types of events calmly and evenly without removing meaning.

    We know that some people can seem to be ‘born’ enlightened, or can find it almost spontaneously. The means whereby they show calmness and peace in the face of the world may have nothing to do with their personal beliefs with regard to ‘meaning’ they attached to objects or events. It may be understood from the outside in those terms, or it may not, but as has been pointed out already, the experience of the self is uniquely personal and we will likely never understand what they use. Yet, we can see its result.

    Draining meaning has utility in that it can be successful in producing peace within sincere participants, but each individual’s actions and reactions along even this one path is highly unique. So, I cannot agree that it is the only way to achieve peace with the world.

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  19. Well said. We never meant to imply this was the only way to achieve peace, but it does seem to us the simplest. It is extremely difficult to find true peace when one imbues things with meaning, since things change, people die, and those things that "matter" will inevitably disappoint you.

    Clearly you are right that some people are born "calmer" (or find it more easily achievable than others); one could also achieve much the same result (if peace is the only goal) through a lobotomy.

    But we stand by our larger point, which is that it is inconsistent to maintain that the universe is meaningless, but we, as sentient creatures in that universe, can create our own "meaning." To us, this seems little more than tilting at windmills.

    We see no evidence that the "self" is anything other than a fantastic and seductive illusion. It is merely a side benefit that the recognition of this truth provides us with perspective on the meaninglessness of life, which in turn leads to true peace and tranquility.

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  20. I empathize with your said "reader" for several reasons.

    First, I'm surprised no one here has mentioned Kant and his Moral Imperatives. Perhaps this is just hogwash in your minds, but I find it very helpful in determining what meaning, if any, is in the universe. He also talks of "duty" to fellow humans, of creating meaning with others through commitments and promises - which I feel relates to your reader's argument about self-created meaning.

    Second, regardless of whether or not there is meaning in the universe, we humans are meaning-makers. This blog and this post would not be possible if we didn't have a language, a structure of meaning in which to communicate. Are you saying communication is meaningless, that whether I say black or white, meaning or unmeaning, that it's all hogwash? Your very attempt to explain an answer to me seems to side with your reader, who advocates self-created meaning in concert with others.

    Third, how can we have any understanding of our world without meaning? Newtonian physics, Einstein's relativity, all scientific theories are based on mathematical interpretation of observation. All we have is our senses, and our senses can lie to us, as Descartes onward have proven. Our senses create our own sense - of self, others and the world at large. I don't see how you've gotten out of this circular argument or crux on which our entire knowledge rests.

    Which ultimately leads me to advocate for mystery in the meaning v. unmeaning debate. We can't KNOW for certain there is no meaning, just as we can't KNOW for certain there is meaning. There is room for tension on a spectrum; rather than trying to be either/or, let's look for more both/and possibilities. Personally, I think your argument goes too far, beyond observation and available knowledge, to assert a truth that's unproven and never capable of being proven. To say there is no God is as bold a step of faith as saying there is one (or more...).

    Ultimately, we all have faith that our beliefs are true... let us also have faith (and keep the door open to that possibility) that others might be right, too.

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  21. Bomstein said:

    It seems to us that thou dost protest too much. In essence, your argument boils down to one of the following:

    1) There is indeed a self separate from the physical body, and this entity has feelings and preferences that have meaning (because they have been so decreed by said entity).

    2) There is no separate self. However, the concept of meaning is so vague and vapid that anything can be said to "matter," so long as a sufficiently complex self-referential creature (which does not actually "exist") says so.

    Or are we missing something?


    Somehow I overlooked this comment. Yes, you are missing something. It’s really not that complicated... I’m not actually protesting... and that aspect of my argument really isn’t all that important at all. I am trying to show you the piece of jade in my hand, and you arguing over whether or I’ve not I’ve had a manicure.

    p.s. The previous "anonymous" who quoted the rock and roll bits is now Cap'n Jack (suitably absurd, yes?)

    p.p.s. Did the rock and roll not give you a hint that not all things are to be overthought -- and that sometimes overanalysis leads to greater obfuscation rather than greater clarity?

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  22. But we stand by our larger point, which is that it is inconsistent to maintain that the universe is meaningless, but we, as sentient creatures in that universe, can create our own "meaning." To us, this seems little more than tilting at windmills.

    Ah, but this larger point is absolute bollocks, because all you do here is fall upon your own sword.

    He who takes an ABSOLUTE view of meaningless becomes an utter hypocrite the moment any attempt is made to invoke absolute truth.

    If the universe is absolutely meaningless, then there is NO SUCH THING as truth.

    Look... you can't have it both ways without looking like a bit of a git. If you say there is no meaning at all, and then make an attempt to meaningfully prove someone else wrong or mistaken, you've eaten your own tail.

    The world is full of seeming contradictions mate. That's what those zen masters were constantly on about. What is the sound of one hand clapping. The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. The absurdity of this funny old world resides precisely in the fact that seeming contradiction DOES exist in many interesting forms. It's all over the bloody place.

    One of those seeming areas of contradiction is the ability for meaning to exist on a personal plane yet not exist on the universal plane. Gosh, how is this possible? Hell mate, don't ask me. Not sure how it's possible for love to be something meaningful and wonderful yet nothing more than a ragbag of physico-chemical impulses at the same time, but, there it is.

    You need your own deep dose of the absurd mate. Put some in a paper bag and breathe deep of it. Better to recognize it's no philosophical failing to recognize or admit the existence of seeming philosophical contradictions -- like meaning existing on one plane but not on another -- than to try and pound the table and wound up pounding yourself in the head by mistake.

    The world, after all, is a truly absurd place innit? Wouldn't be all that overly absurd if intensely linear people weren't a bit flummoxed by it all...

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  23. Just to shine a little more light on my point...

    Imagine you were able to take a survey of a million people from all over the world -- all different types of folks, with the only qualification that all of them are basically squared up with Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (nobody starving etc.)

    Then imagine you asked these million survey respondents all some variant of the question, "Is love important in your life... does the love of another human being, any human being, have what you might call a richness, a significance, an importance in your life."

    I would bet you the Black Pearl and all her crew that an overwhelming number, those not deluded or insane, would answer YES to your question. All would experience a certain richness, significance, importance attached to loving another person -- be it their father, mother, child, sibling, uncle, or, hell, even their pet wallaby with distinctly person-like personalities.

    And in that response, all these millions of people would be responding in the affirmative that LOVE HAS MEANING, mate, going by the standard dictionary definitions of what "love" is and what "meaning" is, because "meaning" as yon old dictionary scribes define it boils down to little more than richness or significance as described from the viewpoint of one individual person.

    And so, if you were to take the time with each of the yes correspondents to say "Sorry chap, you know love has no meaning at all hey," the ones who bothered to respond might say something like "Bloody hell, it sure feels important to me, and I bet to you too you daft wanker. How can you not see it?"

    And so here is my point again mate... look up "love" in the dictionary, look up "meaning" in the dictionary, then ponder the ubiquitous aspects of love in people's lives and recognize that to say "love is no meaning" is a bollocks argument.

    Oh, it's an argument you can defend with all the technicalities you want... but at the end of the day it's a ship that doesn't sail mate. Not even in your own life, for sure as Barbosa's rotten breath the love of your six-year-old actually "means" something to you, whether your high-minded brainy side recognizes that reality or not.

    And this pragmatic realization makes all the difference because 1) meaning is bloody personal as I've been previously banging on about as "anonymous" and 2) you can't ignore the empirical in life, mate. That's like being a scientist who comes up with theories on how the world works and constantly, even aggressively, ignores how the bloody real world actually works just outside his door.

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  24. Oh and one more thing... all this, all of it, every bit of it, goes back to a previous key point of mine, which, if you will forgive me the rudeness, I will now shout: MEANING IS TETHERED TO CONSCIOUSNESS.

    You puzzle over where meaning can bubble up from in an overall meaningless universe. I tell you, again and again, that meaning is self-created and personal, that it resides in the seat of self-aware consciousness.

    And so the question, really, is where does conscious come from? How can any previously inanimate object -- you, me, the Pope, an iguana -- achieve any semblance of self-awareness and self-reflection where once only inanimate matter resided?

    THAT is the bloody unanswerable question mate. And yet, consciousness is not just a question, but an answer.

    If you can recognize that meaning exists wholly in relation to personal perspective -- swear to Christ, it's in the dictionary! -- then you can recognize that meaning originates from consciousness... and on recognizing that, you can let go of all your technicalities and provisos and quid pro quos and simply embrace the absurdity of the fact that none of us, not a bloody fecking one of us, has the slightest clue as to how consciousness actually originates (Hofstadter's brilliant guesses notwithstanding).

    Put down the slide rule mate. Recognize that meaning is a byproduct of the ineffable mystery of consciousness... and that consciousness is a mystery par excellence which practically DEMANDS one put aside the slide-rule mindset and give the old zen masters a go.

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  25. Let us first say we agree with Mr. Presley-McGowan that "We can't KNOW for certain there is no meaning, just as we can't KNOW for certain there is meaning." No question. Clearly we fall on the meaningless side, but you are absolutely correct this can never be proven one way or another, since anything we experience is by definition "warped" through our senses, etc.

    However, our argument here is whether, if we accept the universe is meaningless, there remains room for "self-created meaning." We continue to say no. As we see it, there are two points.

    1) If the physical is all there is (i.e., non-duality), then you simply cannot argue for some sort of "self-created meaning." Well, you can, but it is not consistent. (As noted above, you can argue there is some sort of spiritual "other world," but that doesn't seem to be the case here.)

    It seems likely we are not defining "meaning" the same way. When we use this term we mean something that has some sort of transcendental significance, which is of course not possible if the universe is meaningless. You want to argue it is something "less," and that we are "falling on our sword" by insisting on this consistency. But to us that essentially obviates the argument. Under your scenario, "meaning" simply refers to something you prefer to another state of affairs (e.g., I prefer my wife not sleep around). But this waters down the concept of meaning to the point of ridiculousness. You could also argue (for example) that a piece of bread has "meaning" to a sparrow, since it clearly prefers having the bread to not having it.

    You also argue love is "something meaningful and wonderful yet nothing more than a ragbag of physico-chemical impulses at the same time," but here you are simply assuming the conclusion. Why is it "meaningful and wonderful"? Because of the impulses! Given sufficient knowledge of how the brain works you could hook up a machine that gives you the exact same sensations and experiences, and under your definition of "meaning" there would be no difference. Would you would argue one could "love" a computer-generated visage in a virtual reality world?

    Taking it a step further, would you say the hallucinations of a schizophrenic can also create meaning? Yes, it sounds ridiculous (since they do not exist), but that is exactly the point! If the universe is meaningless and there is no "soul," then "we" do not exist either. It is as simple as that. You can argue up and down that your own experience (and that of others') proves different, but this is akin to claiming the Bible is "proof" of God.

    (And please tell us we don't really need to respond to the argument that "most people disagree with us." We imagine you realize the folly of this path.)

    Continued below...

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  26. 2) The second issue is whether "meaning" is helpful or not in living a happy/content life. We argue no. Go back to the original example again (that of your wife having an affair). How do you define "love"? We imagine you would say it has to do with wanting things that make the other person happy. If so, and they are happier having an affair, then why would it bother you? Ah, because this kind of "love" is actually about dependence on others for your own happiness. You don't want her to have an affair because it will damage your own view of your "self," or your "ego," or whatever concept you have of who you are. (Even though "you" are simply a physical being who will vanish forever once your heart stops beating.)

    You continue to believe your life is somehow "richer" than ours because you believe in this fantasy. But this is really no different from the character in The Matrix who wants out of the "real world" and his memories of it erased. Again, it is not that we don't have experiences and enjoy things. It's just that we recognize the whole thing is an elaborate illusion, an incredible trick of the light. To us, that is pretty darn rich.

    The bottom line is you can't have it both ways. You can't care about things only when it is convenient to do so - they either matter or they don't. And the only reason to want them to matter is because in doing so you boost your concept of who "you" are. Once you introduce the concept of meaning you open the door to inevitable pain and conflict, all in the futile pursuit (whether you admit it or not) of immortality.

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  27. It seems likely we are not defining "meaning" the same way. When we use this term we mean something that has some sort of transcendental significance, which is of course not possible if the universe is meaningless.

    Aha! Well, there's a part of the problem right there. Pardon my French, but who gives a flying fuck about "transcendental" significance? Over and over I have been hammering home the personal aspect of meaning, which, almost intrinsically by definition, is NOT transcendental at all!

    This goes back to my repeated point, "meaning is tethered to consciousness." Because consciousness is temporary and ephemeral, so too is self-created meaning. As the buddha said, with my own thoughts I create my world. And thus, when Jack Sparrow's consciousness is extinguished, so too is his world, and all the meaning that resides within it.

    But, here is the important thing -- the ephemeral nature of meaning on the personal plane in no way blocks or impedes the reality of meaning in day-to-day life!

    I think I spot part of your problem... you are conflating without realizing it. You take the supposed importance of the transcendental and overlay it on the experiential. This is a mistake. The fact that self-created meaning is NOT transcendental in no way diminishes the IMPORTANCE of self-created meaning on a PERSONAL level. Savvy?

    Cap'n Jack admits to a bit of bemused frustration here. All along I've been banging the drum for personal, personal, personal. I've repeatedly used words like temporary, ephemeral, impermanent. I've cited the dictionary term in an effort to highlight that meaning as it is understood experientially, and even as it is defined most commonly, is a personal point of reference.

    And NOW you say, "Oh, right, we weren't actually talking about meaning and things mattering as the dictionary defines it and as every bloody person on the planet experiences it in day to day life. We were off on some bloody philosophical nitpick..."

    But really I'm not too frustrated, and actually more pleased, because now we are getting closer to resolving your dilemma.

    Your dilemma, as Cap'n Jack sees it, revolves around a useless fixation on the transcendental -- or rather, a futile attempt to conflate the transcendental with the personal. Doesn't work. Shouldn't work anyway. Makes no sense on either level. That's why the universal and the personal are two different things, just as personal experience doesn't matter (to the universe) yet does matter (to the person experiencing it) at the same time.

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  28. Let us first say we agree with Mr. Presley-McGowan that "We can't KNOW for certain there is no meaning, just as we can't KNOW for certain there is meaning." No question.

    No. No, no, no. Wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

    Actually beg my pardon -- I should "not even wrong." Your frame of reference shows you haven't yet absorbed a key point of the argument.

    Look. Meaning is personal... a derivative of consciousness, typically intertwined with personal experience, and the validity of personal experience is not up for debate.

    Let us say your wife is angry that Shaquille O' Neal has signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Who knows why... she is just angry about it.

    You can debate with your wife whether she has a right to be angry about this... you can debate whether it is rational for her to be angry over Shaq's move... but you cannot debate the existence of her anger, because personal experience is self-validating.

    If, in my personal experience, I elect to assign meaning to a thing, then meaning exists in relation to my self-created world. This is not up for debate. It is my world, my personal experience!

    Furthermore, there is no other fashion in which meaning can exist. All meaning is personal. All meaning is experienced within the context of sentient personal experience. Every self aware, self reflecting being is a contained world of one.

    And thus, debating whether we can "know" if there is meaning is as silly as debating we can "know" whether or not there are emotions.

    Do we "know" that there are emotions? Yes, because people FEEL them. YOU feel them. Meaning is the same. It is derived from personal experience. It is a function of consciousness and one's thought-driven self-created world. And so the existence of meaning on some exterior plane is not up for debate.

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  29. 1) If the physical is all there is (i.e., non-duality), then you simply cannot argue for some sort of "self-created meaning." Well, you can, but it is not consistent. (As noted above, you can argue there is some sort of spiritual "other world," but that doesn't seem to be the case here.)


    Hell's bells, man, this was exactly my point in regard to consciousness. The very presence of consciousness within a materialistic world, the very notion that consciousness can arise from atoms being smashed together, is in and of itself one of the greatest paradoxes of all time. The idea of self-aware, self-reflecting beings born out of an atomistic inert universe is in itself "inconsistent." You must consider the paradoxes that reside within reality itself as a starting point.

    You also argue love is "something meaningful and wonderful yet nothing more than a ragbag of physico-chemical impulses at the same time," but here you are simply assuming the conclusion. Why is it "meaningful and wonderful"? Because of the impulses!

    Now we are traveling in circles... Einstein said (paraphrase) that a problem cannot be solved with the same consciousness that created it.

    Our communication problem seems to stem from the fact that you refuse to cede my key point: meaning is tethered to consciousness. "Meaningful" and "wonderful" are assignations of emotion, which arise from personal experience, which are in turn rooted in consciousness. The real mystery is how the ragbag gave birth to consciousness in the first place.

    Once excepts the paradoxical presence of consciousness, and further recognizes that meaning is similar to emotion in that both are self-validating aspects of personal experience, it is not hard to see where "meaningful" and "wonderful" come from. They come from within.

    I have images in my mind now of wrestling with a Great Dane, trying to wrest away his Linear Bone. Reality is not linear in an up-and-down consistent way. Au contraire, reality is filled to bursting with seeming paradox. One can name numerous circumstances, for example, where it is appropriate to feel profoundly happy and deeply sad at the same time. (If your imagination fails you I would be happy to provide a real life instance.) But again, the greatest paradoxes go back to the central paradox of consciousness. Once we accept consciousness as a focal point, and understand the self-validating nature of personal experiences -- without trying to stuff them through into some "transcendental" poppycock shoebox -- we can make real progress.

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  30. 2) The second issue is whether "meaning" is helpful or not in living a happy/content life. We argue no. Go back to the original example again (that of your wife having an affair). How do you define "love"?...

    Now you are just being obtuse. I say this less out of frustration and more in hope you will recognize your obtuseness. (Though admittedly my hopes are slim...)

    First off, you continue to conflate the transcendental (which I wholly agree doesn't matter) with the personal (which damn well does).

    Second of all, you seem to be advocating for existence in some kind of fantasy world. You forget that consciousness, ephemeral as it is, is also tethered to a real world... a physical world... a human reality.

    Given that the transcendental is pointless, the personal takes precedence. Call it the "primacy of the personal."

    As an individual, conscious, self-aware human being, there is really not much value in my giving a shit about transcendental issues except in respect to how they will affect me personally, now and in future.

    As such, it makes sense for one's philosophy to be integrated and aligned with the long-term well being of consciousness. A philosophy that says "love doesn't matter" is poppycock because it does not do this. It goes against the grain of both personal experience and logic to such an extreme degree as to become worse than useless. It becomes grating and irritating.

    Consider, again, the paradox of consciousness. As strange as consciousness is, we know it arises from certain physico-chemical reactions. We know that memories and knowledge are literally stored as electrical / chemical energy patterns in the brain.

    As such, we can further know that human consciousness, and thus human reality, is distinctly shaped by certain aspects of biological man... certain realities born of man's biological evolution over millions of years.

    As such, for you to say "love doesn't matter / adultery doesn't matter" is not just to go against philosophical common sense and day-to-day life common sense. It is also to cut against the grain of ivory tower common sense.

    I say, all philosophies and theories, ESPECIALLY the ones relating to personal elements like happiness and fulfilled life experience, should be test driven in the real world. They should be considered for robusticity, empirical validity, and pragmatic effectiveness in the real world. (Not unlike investing and trading methodologies.) There should be a willingness and an ability to gather substantial evidence and then generalize across the data set.

    By this measure, the idea that "love does not matter / adultery does not matter" fails miserably on multiple counts. It fails in terms of the transcendental / personal conflation. (To speak transcendentally is to irrelevant if it is the personal that matters.) It fails on the personal experience test. (Show me someone who truly loves their wife and cares not if she has an affair, and I will show you a man deeply deluded or mistaken or both.) It fails the personal philosophy test. (To strive incredibly hard to keep from being hurt by someone -- an act of cowardice in my view -- is also to deny certain emotional pleasures that come with opening up to them.) And finally, it fails the biological test. (Man was not built to be an uncaring automaton.)

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  31. The bottom line is you can't have it both ways. You can't care about things only when it is convenient to do so - they either matter or they don't. And the only reason to want them to matter is because in doing so you boost your concept of who "you" are. Once you introduce the concept of meaning you open the door to inevitable pain and conflict, all in the futile pursuit (whether you admit it or not) of immortality.

    Ha! I am laughing now -- scout's honor -- a deep, rich, full-throated laugh.

    You completely misunderstand me, man. Completely! The distance between us after all this time is exquisite.

    First of all: I damn well can care about things only when it is convenient to do so. This is exactly what "altitude adjustment" is all about. "With my thoughts I create my world." Do you know what that means? It means that, because meaning is wholly a function of personal experience, I get to DECIDE what is meaningful and what is not. I have the power to CHOOSE when to embrace life, to be intoxicated by its beauty, and when to withdraw, transcending to the perspective of the pale blue dot and distant galaxies.

    The "ability to care only when it is convenient to do so" is exactly what metaphysical self-discipline is all about!!! This is the precisely the elegant beauty of self-created meaning... rather than having others choose, the self-aware individual chooses for him or herself when to hold tightly... and when to let go lightly. When to assign meaning... and when to let go

    You know that scene at the end of the Matrix, when Neo stops the bullets? THIS is what he was doing. The ability to control one's interactions with self-created meaning at will is the equivalent of stopping the bullets.

    I can sympathize with your confusion... though unplugged, perhaps you have never met anyone who can stop bullets before.

    "Are you telling me I'll be able to dodge bullets?"

    "When the time comes, Neo, I'm telling you won't have to."

    Damn right...

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  32. As for "boosting my concept" of "who I am"... again, merry peals of laughter. Who gives a shit about any of that? Who cares what you think, or anyone? I am simply on the path to living the most fulfilled life I can... and to the degree that I expose emotional vulnerability to others while on that path, so be it... this isn't about ego, or proving anything to anyone else at all. To wrongly assume this is to perhaps hint at one's own preoccupation with the thoughts and concerns of the external world... heck, even my postings on this blog are not for you or anyone else. They are for me, and the clarification process that this kind of discussion brings.

    As for accusing me of a "futile pursuit of immortality"... pardon me while I let out the biggest belly laugh of all: HA, HA, HA, HA, HA...

    Have you read nothing I have written my good man? (Honestly, I am grinning from ear to ear now.)

    Just look at the words I have used, over and over and over! Ephemeral... temporary... personal... experiential...

    YOU have been the one constantly conflating transcendental with personal. I have been beating the drum for the personal all along.

    YOU have been the one trying so hard to fit meaning into some universal box that transcends experience. I have been arguing all along for personal experience.

    YOU have been the one obsessed with technical philosophical questions, like the existence of a separate self or whether apes can experience meaning. I, again, have been repeatedly drawing the argument back to personal consciousness -- which is OBVIOUSLY temporary, given the absence of eternal life.

    I couldn't give a tin shit about immmortality man. There are few subjects I could possibly care less about. I have demonstrated this in word and deed, over and over again, with my emphasis on finding meaning in the personal... the experiential... the ephemeral. My self-created world will obviously come to an end one day. And when it does, that will suit me just fine, because the dead have no regrets.

    With all due respect Bomstein, you really haven't been listening to old Jack... mayhap you've been trying so hard to refute the arguments of an opponent that you haven't considered the merits of truly changing your perspective... just trying on an unfamiliar vantage point and seeing how it feels...

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  33. p.s. For the sake of time I am not editing these responses for typos (as I am sure you have already figured out). This paragraph, though, requires a quick note:

    As such, for you to say "love doesn't matter / adultery doesn't matter" is not just to go against philosophical common sense and day-to-day life common sense. It is also to cut against the grain of ivory tower common sense.

    I mean to say "biological common sense" in that last sentence. Ivory tower common sense is an oxymoron.

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  34. Well...we are still confused. From our reading, your definition of "meaning" is so broad as to be exactly meaningless (pun fully intended). If anyone can make anything "meaningful," then what exactly is the point?

    Further, you contradict yourself when you talk of "letting go lightly," yet maintain it is some biological imperative that you get upset if you wife strays. So which is it? Do you care or don't you? We thought you could stop bullets - surely you can handle a little infidelity.

    We would also point out that monogamy is a relatively recent human development tied largely to agriculture, and not some "reality born of man's biological evolution over millions of years." Please. Your claim that "man was not built to be an uncaring automaton" also seems some weird mixture of pseudo-religion. "Built" by whom, exactly? Now we are the ones laughing...

    You accuse us of being wedded to some unrealistic ivory tower viewpoint that has nothing to do with reality. On the contrary. We simply accept the world the way it is, without the need to create our own "meaning." You, on the other hand, say you have something called "meaning," but only when you want it, and you and you alone decide when and how to turn it on and off. What kind of meaning is that? We ask again - if you can stop bullets, why should your wife's infidelity bother you?

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  35. You ask: If anyone can make anything "meaningful," then what exactly is the point?

    Well... the answer to your question is embedded right there in the question itself. The fact that "anyone can make anything meaningful" speaks to the freedom we are afforded.

    Again, the buddha's words: with our thoughts we create our world. The ability to create one's world also implies, very clearly, the ability to shape one's world as one sees fit.

    As for contradicting myself... no. Going back to the Matrix analogy -- which is an imperfect analogy, though a useful one -- the ability for Neo to stop bullets did not translate into the ability for him to do anything. He could not turn himself into a cigarette lighter, for example, or suddenly make it rain gumdrops.

    Consider what Morpheus told Neo prior to their first combat in the sparring program: "What you must learn is these rules are no different than the rules of a computer system. Some of them can be bent. Others can be broken."

    To understand, we cycle back round to consciousness again. Consciousness is the seat of meaning... and biology is the seat of consciousness. It is not possible to separate the conscious reality of a human being from said human's physical existence. The active presence of biological elements such as the amygdala, the neocortex, the hypothalami and so on create consciousness.

    And so it is that, as we follow the dictates of the buddha in recognizing that with our thoughts we create our world... and further that we have significant ability to manage and shape and control that world... we must be reminded of Morpheus' guidance that "Some [rules] can be bent. Others can be broken." The clear implication here (via the word "some") is that not ALL rules can be bent or broken.

    As for the history of monogamy, your point is irrelevant... no need to tumble into that minutia briar patch.

    If I were married (which I am not), I could indeed make myself "not care" about adultery if I chose to. But why would I choose to? In reducing the degree of emotional connection with my soul mate, my true love, by preparing myself in advance for her suspected infidelity, I would simply be closing myself off. I would be reducing the value of the existing relationship in the name of excess future precaution.

    Furthermore, some pain is worth feeling. Some pain actually adds and enhances the character and context and richness of life. You may find this hard to comprehend, but if my future love were to betray me, I would want to feel pain. I would see that pain as part of the richness, the texture, the fullness of life. Part of living the most fulfilled life. The idea that a life well lived is a life free of pain is a very small idea methinks.

    But again, this goes back to choices. Whether one chooses to feel or not to feel, the operative word here is "choose." I say that self-aware beings have the ability, if they embrace it, to choose... to mold their reality as they see fit, WITHIN the context of certain systematic rules as laid out by situational reality and the fact that biology is the seat of consciousness.

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  36. As for my phrase "man was not built"... figure of speech. Man was "built" by the blind and uncaring process of evolution, fine. I thought this fact so obviously agreed upon among scientifically literate adults that it was not necessary to belabor it. The point DOES remain, though, that man did not reach his optimal state by way of denying his emotions. As they have been throughout the millennia, emotions are a source of power and pleasure when properly harnassed. Thus, to DENY emotions outright, in my view, to bloodlessly drain them of color and vitality, is akin to voluntarily becoming a metaphysical eunuch. Not to mention that a full draining of the emotional compliment is impossible (biological seat of consciousness again).

    Again: "some [rules]can be bent. Others can be broken."

    I would question your assertion that you accept the world the way it is. I question it because you persistently seem to deny your own reality. You pose as if you would not care if your wife cheated on you, when clearly you would. You pose as if the love of family and friends means nothing to you, when there is little doubt your deeds there speak louder than your words.

    And as for what I have... yes I have meaning. Indeed I have meaning. But this is not a profound gift given to me alone. Anyone who is self-aware, self-conscious, posessing emotions and memory and a will, has the ability to infuse their life with self-created meaning through personal experience. This is just a simple observation that finds empirical validation in the day-to-day actions of billions of people, every day, all around the world.

    As for me alone deciding what to turn on and off... yes. I am the captain of my own soul. I sit in the seat of my own consciousness. Through a combination of discipline, contemplation and training, I practice the art of shaping and control my own self-created world, within the scope of the paramaters as they are made available to me. Some rules can be bent. Others can be broken.

    I do not really wish to fight with you, Bomstein. Nor do I strive to even "prove you wrong," or to uplift my own point of view, in the sense that these are neither implicit nor explicit goals. After all, "this too is meaningless." I just find it curious how adamant you are – how determined you seem not to explore an alternative point of view. (And what I say to you here is by no means “new,” by the way... at best is merely a new spin on some very old wisdom.)

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  37. p.s. before you seize with glee on the apparent contradiction in my assertion -- that I could choose to "not care" about adultery if so desired -- let me head that one off at the pass.

    Any act of deliberate emotional disentanglement has a cost. In the case of a marriage, I submit to you that a man who is obsessed with not feeling pain if his wife cheats on him will eventually be man who finds that love gone cold. The light is not worth the candle, if one views love as a reason to be married in the first place. Emotional risk cannot be fully excised from emotional reward. It can only be bundled and transferred to some other area of the psyche, like some kind of metaphysical CDO.

    This too goes back to a significant philosophical difference between us. You seem to believe in pre-emptive disengagement; I believe in healing.

    Think of it like approaching a beautiful woman. If you never woo her, never court her, then you succeed in avoiding pain of a sort. You never have to face the pain of rejection. You guarantee she will not hurt you.

    But you also guarantee that she will never be with you, never fall into your arms, let you plunge your hands into her perfumed hair...

    Life is suffering as the buddha said. No risk, no reward. That is why my strategy focuses on healing -- and strength in the ability to detach at will via metaphysical contemplation and training -- as opposed to pre-emptive withdrawal. To harness the full range and power of emotions is to risk getting burned, just as driving a powerful race car at full throttle is to risk crashing in one of the turns. But what is lost, really, in the event that pain is experienced? Is pain so bad a thing in pursuit of deeply meaningful and enriching experience, especially if the reward-to-risk spread is delicious and vast? (Beautiful woman example again -- five minutes of rejection vs 100 nights of passion. Hmmm...)

    Life is for living, my friend... embracing emotion is key in that regard. And so, it is better to learn the art of fast healing, of altitude adjustment and practical zen, then to be trapped by the rigidities of pre-emptive detachment.

    I do not say this is the only way. It is simply the way that I see as the best way.

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  38. p.p.s. One other final point of clarification (as I take a break from a marathon work session in the wee hours of the morning)...

    I stated earlier that I am not married. In anticipating possible objection, one could say "Well, what does an unmarried man truly know about love in the context of marriage and adultery and whatnot in the first place?"

    But the whimsical (absurd?) truth is that I was actually married at one time -- for a solid five years. Even more ironically, given the genesis of this thread, my young and volatile wife cheated on me. (As Morpheus said, fate is not without a sense of irony.) But that was not the cause of our split... and even now, many years on, we remain close friends who stay in regular contact (weekly or so on average). One might call it an extremely quirky situation with a surprise-twist happy ending.

    I reveal this both for the sake of credibility -- given the thrust of the topic just discussed -- and as a further token contribution to the absurd. It is, in some ways, extremely absurd that I choose to reveal this personal anecdote to you at 2 a.m. in the morning pacific time. But, screw it. Part of the ego-release process, I believe, is a willingness to occasionally "check ego at the door" in practice by doing the occasional bizarre, revealing or otherwise convention-discomfiting thing. It's further absurd that the emotional impact of personal revelation can even pierce the veil of a whimsical pseudonym... but again, hi-ho, the universe is absurd. This much we know is true. And truth can indeed be far stranger than fiction. The various plot twists in old Jack Sparrow's life thus far can certainly attest to that.

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  39. You guys sure spend a lot of effort on meaninglessness. You into Irony much?

    I find your arguments about adultery and betrayal completely specious. I sense you have no direct experience with the reality of that topic, the way you talk so breezily about it, the way you overlook the impact of broken families, the way you dismiss the desire to uphold a commitment as mere vestiges of biological evolution.

    You don't understand what adultery is, what betrayal is, and therefore your use of it as an example holds no weight. You suppose that a man's distaste about his wife's affair is about HIM, but sometimes it's about his children, and their children.

    Do you know that children's self image, when they are young, is entirely based on their parents, and when their parents argue or split, the child literally becomes schizo. Does this "not matter" too?

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  40. There can be no truth without meaning.

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  41. Wow -- what a war of wits above, between Jack Sparrow and Mr. Rick Bomstein, who apparently has such issues with self that he's forgotten he's but one person and refers to himself (theirselves?) with a collective pronoun.

    The Cap'n proves that not only is he a daring, dastardly, dashing devil of a pirate but quite a wise philosopher and a master of debate -- the array of Mr. Bomsteins, despite their multiplicative advantage (perhaps each successive comment by Bomstein is actually simply successive iterations of Self, like leaving footprints -- selfprints -- but even the first comment references "we"), and their complete refusal to amend or even acknowledge a point of view outside of their own (it must be meaningless, after all), has in their arguments all the weight of a balloon filled with hot air. Get a clue, Bomsteins.

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  42. Interesting for the moment, but meaningless in the grand scheme of things--your words, gentlepeople, your words. For me, it was an entertaining hour. Hopefully when the time comes when there's no longer time, may we be pleasantly surprised. Until then, to not find meaning and solace in a leaf, or the night sky, in questions rather than answers, in the eternal mystery of it all--that to me defines the absurd. If you will, excuse me, for I must now move my bowels. Sometimes meaning can be as simple as this act.

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  43. A leaf, or the night sky, or the question, "Who am I?" into the epistemological loss of "self" as "i" while rebounding on the Idea offered for grasping that the incomprehensible Self, or Atma, is part and parcel to "Sat" the Indestructible Ever-Existing Real Substance, as Paramatma.

    My friend, an heart surgeon had seen many chests opened with hearts exposed and vowed he understood by elaborate terminology the visible meanings for what he conceived to be the root of the problem(s) behind his visible efforts and abilities as a specialist to diagnose and take corrective measure.

    Edmund Gettier is remembered for his 1963 argument which called into question the theory of knowledge that had been dominant among philosophers for thousands of years.[4] In a few pages, Gettier argued that there are situations in which one's belief may be justified and true, yet fail to count as knowledge. That is, Gettier contended that while justified belief in a true proposition is necessary for that proposition to be known, it is not sufficient. As in the diagram above, a true proposition can be believed by an individual but still not fall within the "knowledge" category.

    If valued as something precious the Idea arising from and through a most ideal pathway as intuition may be seen, felt and understood as embued not only from a position holding information currently or generally unconscious in the most part to vast past experience consciousness and so qualifying as experiential knowledge but moreover as arising in perfect Truth from a position not held as and/or handed down from a position considered through any literary, documentary or historically profound political or accepted and valued secular position of authority therefor qualifying as Self.

    My friend the specialist presenting a look of someone questioningly inquiring respond, "No", when asked if he had ever seen the Seventh Chamber of the Heart located about two fingers below the breastbone and about two fingers to the right of the collarbone continued to receive information as I stated that the Seventh Chamber is known to many as the signalatric node, the Seat of Brahma, and the Seat of the spiritual soul or Atma. When he heard the explanation and location of this Sanctum Sanctorium it seemed as if he was recalling certain events throughout his career as a specialist that finally held deeper meaning. To everyone approaching such a spiritual turning point in life through whichever religion of the world and through whatever chain of events or circumstances that require reaching understanding regarding the beginning of answers to the question, "Who am I?", the esoteric values of humanity should always rely on common sense and that "gut feeling" about whether or not this or that is true. My specialist friend witnessed my submission of surrender as further I explained that by spending a lot of life unconscious it is only common sense (not ego) that validates the fact that I cannot consciously keep myself breathing and my heart beating.

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  44. Amazing the resilience between Capt. Jack and the authors of this blog. I take the Captain's side. I don't think the bloggers understood initially the nuances being proposed - that personal meaning in the sense he was proposing is not at all Meaning=Truth (the sense they seemed to be taking).

    Anyway, I just thought it might be useful for anyone wanting to understand the Captain's point better to read Robert C. Solomon's book, "The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life." I also loved his book, "Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life," but that might be too much for this group. Solomon was a well read existentialist scholar who understands and accepts the absurd, but also recognizes that to live the absurd life to the fullest involves understanding the emotions and how personal meanings can effect the quality of life through the emotions. He is secular and makes no claims as to metaphysical realities beyond our own but is only emphasizing how to get the most out of living in the time we have as Camus emphasized.

    Sorry for adding these comments five years after the dialog ended but I am new to these topics and this is the stage of my own journey that I am traveling through so I was glad to be a part of the dialog even if I was 5 years late. Gary

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