Friday, June 25, 2010

Reasons and Persons

"There are some people who believe that our identity must be determinate, though they do not believe that we are separately existing entities, distinct from our brains and bodies, and our experiences. This view I believe to be indefensible. What explains the alleged fact that personal identity is always determinate?...There are other people who believe that, though we are not separately existing entities, personal identity is a further fact. These people believe that personal identity does not just consist in the different kinds of physical and psychological continuity. This is another view that I believe to be indefensible. If we are not separately existing entities, in what could this further fact consist?...We cannot defensibly believe that our identity involves a further fact, unless we are to believe that we are separately existing entities, distinct from our brains and bodies." --Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons.

We have written several times about Douglas Hofstadter's book "I Am a Strange Loop," which was arguably the book that "pulled it all together" for us. In it, Hofstadter strongly recommended Derek Parfit's book "Reasons and Persons," a near-600 word philosophical tome that has sat, largely unread, on our bedside table for the past few years. We pulled it out the other day after seeing it referenced in a comment on a fascinating NY Times piece on whether this should be the "last generation," sent to us by a reader.

Let us put this as simply as possible. Get the book. Read it.

To be honest, the book starts with a tedious technical discussion of logical ethics that can probably be skipped. (It was this section that dissuaded us from reading further on previous attempts.) But beginning with Part II, which discusses issues of time and identity (e.g., why should one care if something happens in the past or future, or to one's self or another), the work is a masterpiece. It methodically and thoroughly debunks any and all attempts to create a vision of self-hood without reliance on some otherworldly realm, and lays out some very interesting implications for how one "should" act in the face of such facts.

We will not spoil the surprise here, in large part because this is a book that must be read to be truly understood. While some of the conclusions will come as no surprise to readers of this blog, others seem highly counterintuitive at first glance - we have found ourselves re-reading passages several times in the past few days - and the depth of the arguments is something readers should experience directly.

None of us actually exist. There is no "there" there. And yet, in an incredible cosmic accident, we find ourselves possessed of the ability to comprehend and study this truly incredible world we inhabit. A reviewer once described the late David Foster Wallace as someone who had a "tendency to explore the experience of living even as he’s living it" - this, in a nutshell, is the wonder of the absurd.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Mencken on the meaning of life

H.L. Mencken is one of our heroes.

And yes, absurdists can have heroes, if only for inspiration, if only – as the great Hunter Thompson put it – to show that the “tyranny of the rat race is not yet final.” That there are those who have broken through the conforming mold of society, and all its self-importance and made up meanings, to carve out their own large life, well lived, fully aware of the absurdity of that life.

In the course of writing this blog, we’ve assembled our own wall of the absurd, filled with characters absurd or semi-absurd – Henry Miller, Ludwig Bemelmans, Jim Harrison – among others.

H.L. Mencken is one of those. Whether he’s cutting through the inanity of religion or skewering myths about politics, Mencken’s pieces are full of sharp little edges that horrify those who take themselves seriously.

We’ve been reading Mencken on Mencken, a new collection of previously uncollected autobiographical pieces written by the Sage of Baltimore. What inspires us to write today is a piece titled “The Meaning of Life,” in which he gives absurdity some play.

Reading H.L. Mencken today, one is hard-pressed not to think about how public discourse has changed over the years. Mencken’s writings in the first half of the 20th century would not find a publisher in today’s warmed-over mainstream media. Yet in his day, he was a titan, holding down a spot at the Baltimore Sun, editing mainstream magazines and writing books, most of which sold well.

Take his view on religion:

“The act of worship, as practiced by the Christians, seems to me to be debasing rather than ennobling. It involves groveling before a being, who if he really existed, deserves to be denounced rather than respected. I see little evidence in this world of the so-called goodness of God. On the contrary, it seems to me that, on the strength of his daily acts, he must be set down a most stupid, cruel and villainous fellow.”

Imagine seeing that in today’s Washington Post or New York Times!

On why Mencken does what he does – which is mostly write – he says, “I go on working for the same reason that a hen goes on laying eggs… Life demands to be lived.” A simple absurd view unspoiled by a belief that the work is important or meaningful, which is how a writer today likely answers that question. There must be a moral cause, an urge to make the world a better place.

Mencken would have none of that. In reading about his views on life, you’ll find no sentimentality or wishfulness about wanting or having an eternal soul, nor will you find a craving for meaning of any kind.

“I do not believe in immortality,” he writes, “and have no desire for it. The belief in it issues from the puerile egos of inferior men. In its Christian form, it is little more than a device for getting revenge upon those who are having a better time on this earth.”

And then he concludes his rumination on the meaning of life with a perfect absurd statement, truly wise in many respects.

“What the meaning of life may be, I don’t know: I incline to suspect that it has none. All I know about it is that, to me at least, it is very amusing while it lasts. Even its troubles, indeed, can be amusing… When I die I shall be content to vanish into nothingness. No show, however good, could conceivably be good forever.”

Good old Mencken, absurd man!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Trouble With "Personal Meaning"

"It’s the Kantian sublime, what you’re experiencing. There’s your life, and then you get a glimpse of the vastness of the unknown all around that little itty-bitty island of the known.”--from the short story "The Entire Northern Side Was Covered with Fire," by Rivka Galchen.

"I want to do what I want to do!"--George Bailey, It's a Wonderful Life.

Almost from the moment we started this blog (or so it seems), we have been engaged in a debate about whether one can legitimately draw a distinction between universal meaning (i.e., that there is something beyond the physical, and thus some underlying purpose to human life), and so-called "personal meaning," essentially something that has value only to the individual in question. Those who espouse personal meaning generally claim they simultaneously reject universal meaning, at least so far as one can do so--such a point is, of course, unprovable either way.

As one recent commenter put it: "In the example of the father gathering up his little girl in his arms, the minute mechanical description is the circumstance, the sublime feeling is the significance that transcends the simple act...So when I say meaning I am implying a significance that goes beyond sectioning off a certain class of human (gene-replicating) desire, which would simply be the circumstance."

There are several issues here worth exploring. First, as we have discussed before, the concept of personal meaning is reliant on a non-physical "self," and thus cannot be so easily separated from universal meaning. What is the entity that experiences this meaning? Does it exist independent of its physical processes? If so, then we are talking about something non-physical; if not, then such "meaning" is analogous to (and no more significant than) the shifting of sand on a beach.

Second, we are continually mystified by people who claim the above statement is incompatible with living a content and compassionate life. In fact, we would argue just the opposite--it is belief in the self, in the concept that "I" have independent thoughts, needs, and desires, that leads to all strife and conflict. This may seem counterintuitive at first; indeed, one of the most common objections we get to such a position is: "Well, then, what's to stop you from becoming a mass murderer?" In short, if nothing matters, then surely it is irrelevant whether one hurts others?

But this is to miss the deeper point of irrelevance. In short, the idea that causing harm is somehow justified by the lack of meaning is ridiculous--what is the entity that "enjoys" subjecting others to pain? The fact that one's actions are meaningless is not enough--one must consider why one would prefer to act in such a manner, and the only legitimate answer is belief in a self. Succinctly put: show us a man who accepts the self is an illusion, and we'll show you a man who is truly content.

Finally, as we have noted before, we are not so much seeking "truth" as a lifestyle best suited to what we believe is an utterly pointless existence. And it is here that we find the concept of personal meaning most misleading. Simply put, personal meaning seems a way to have one's cake and also eat it--one can reject the concept of transcendent meaning, while at the same time assigning a sort of "temporary significance" to one's own desires.

Unfortunately, as with most things that sound "too good to be true," this (admittedly seductive) idea contains the seeds of its own demise. For how does one define this personal meaning? As noted, calling it significant only to "me" is a circular argument, as it requires existence of a non-physical self, which forces one to reconsider the universal meaning one has already rejected. It is not, in other words, a consistent belief system, but rather an "out" for those who accept the absurd theoretically, but nevertheless shrink from its true implications.

And is those very implications that hold the key to the content life! It is only when one embraces the meaningless and arbitrary nature of existence that one is free to live truly free from worry and regret, no longer seeking ephemeral pleasures and suffering inevitable disappointments, but rather living moment to moment, knowing one's actions are no more significant than leaving falling from trees, or dinosaur droppings, or even the bits of matter that scientists tell us come into being every so often in empty space, only to vanish the very next instant...

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Deathbed Scenes

We’ve been traveling widely again and will spare you the itinerary, save that we are now on an island that rims the Caribbean Sea. We’ve come to say our goodbyes to our grandfather, who is on his deathbed.

Thoughts, thoughts… absurd thoughts, perch on our shoulders. It is hard to organize how we feel.

Seeing him thus brings home the absurd in a tangible way. We think about all the moments in a life, the things one might change, the worries one might shed, if – if – one truly believed the deathbed scene was a fate unavoidable.

As much as it seems obvious, and as much as people would admit that they will die someday, their actions betray them. If you truly and deeply knew it would end, would you worry as you do? Would you behave as you do today?

It’s easy to think back on a life for moments you thought were greatly important, only to realize how trivial they were years later. A pitch swung on and missed that ended a game seemed a big deal at the time and is now hardly remembered. A pot roast burned. A train missed. A favorite shirt ruined. A watch lost. Upsetting at the time, but clearly trivial now…

It’s harder to think back on a life and realize that all moments were equally unimportant. This is the absurd view – and it does not come naturally.

We use this line of thinking often however, questioning ourselves in the present as if we were thinking back on this moment in the future. If we are upset that the floor is so dirty or the kitchen a mess, we think of the deathbed scene. We doubt we will say then, “Gee, we wish we had washed the floor and cleaned the kitchen on that Sunday afternoon back in oh-ten.”

In fact, we doubt we will remember much of what’s passed. Disappointments, anger, envy – all seem to dissolve in time, like an antacid pill in water. Knowing this is helpful in maintain one’s sense of equanimity in the present.

We find it helpful when we are irritated – or annoyed or worried or whatever – to stop and ask ourselves why, and to really try to pinpoint exactly what burr is under our saddle. Is it something specific hanging over our heads that we must do? Is it something else?

Whatever it is, we identify it. Or if there is more than one item, then we list them in our heads. And with each one we trivialize it – no matter how important it might seem! We tell ourselves it isn’t important and it doesn’t matter. We recall the deathbed scene.

Then, we feel better almost immediately. It works for us. Try it and see. It may work for you, too. It helps us see the world in a more absurd light – and restores that sense of equanimity.

To paraphrase some old Scotch proverb – better to enjoy our living moments, for we are a long time dead!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lucid Dreaming

Sing with me, sing for the year
Sing for the laugh, sing for the tear
Sing with me, if it's just for today
Maybe tomorrow, the good Lord will take you away
Dream On...Dream On...Dream On
Dream until the dream comes true

--Dream On
, Aerosmith

Have you ever had a lucid dream? We had one once, a long time ago, and the memory lingers. Not the memory of what transpired--like all dreams, this one has dissolved in the fog of the past--but the memory of the intense feelings it evoked. Namely, we woke feeling invigorated, with a burning passion to do that again!

Lucid dreams, of course, are dreams in which you realize you are dreaming, and are thus able to control your actions and (more importantly) everything about your environment. Want to fly? No problem. Sex with Megan Fox? Done. In short, a lucid dream is essentially a movie in which you not only star, write, and direct, but are not subject to the rules of the physical world. In many ways it is akin to the "training module" in The Matrix (or, to be honest, the Matrix itself, at least for those able to recognize it...)

Try as we might (which essentially consisted of reading a few articles about lucid dreaming and experimenting with a couple of methods, such as "watching" ourself fall asleep), we were unable to replicate the experience. However, it occurred to us recently that the only difference between lucid dreaming and what we think of as "reality" is the aforementioned control over our environment (well, that and physical laws). In other words, what is to stop us from treating life as a lucid dream?

We have been experimenting with this for a few weeks and it has been an interesting experience. The concept is similar to the notion of playing a role, but with a key difference--when you treat life as a lucid dream it has the liberating effect of eliminating the illusion that others "exist."

Let us explain. In the cult classic "The Family Man" (all right, perhaps a classic only to us...), there is a scene where Nicolas Cage, freshly installed in his new "role," is asked by his 5-year-old daughter if he is really her father. No, he explains, he works on Wall Street ("with the big buildings"), and this is only a "glimpse" of an alternate life. "Well," the little girl asks, seemingly on the verge of tears, "where's my real dad?" This brings Cage up short--good question! This little girl in an alternate universe wants to know where her daddy is...and he has no idea!

But consider why this is unsettling to Cage. He is assuming the little girl exists in some sense, and that the absence of her"real" father is upsetting her. This, then, makes Cage feel bad, as he is the proximate cause of her distress.

Alternatively, think how the scene might play were Cage having a lucid dream. (First, he wouldn't be changing a diaper...) In a lucid dream there is no point in caring what others think, since they do not exist anyway, but are mere creations of our own mind. We know neither they or we are "real," and thus do not spend time worrying about what they might be thinking. We live purely in the moment, thinking neither of consequences nor past grievances.

(To head off an obvious rejoinder here, let us address the issue that such a viewpoint encourages one to cause harm to others, since it doesn't "matter." While this seems to logically follow, in fact it does not--one who renounces the self has no more desire for violence against others than to put out his own eye. In fact, it is the pernicious notion of the self that instigates and perpetuates such acts; one who has no self sees his physical incarnation as akin to sand on the beach. If there is no self then one is part of everything, and even the concept of violence ceases to make sense. Think about it...)

This brings us to the concept of playing a role, which, valuable as it is, has a flaw we only recently recognized. Put simply, while an actor in a play knows his actions do not "matter," and the people he interacts with are also playing roles, underlying this is the latent belief that he (and others) have some sort of "true nature." The "real" Nicolas Cage, for example, is apparently a chateau-loving fool on the verge of bankruptcy. But why do we differentiate this from other roles he has played? What if The Family Man were a long-running soap opera? For that matter, what about soap operas themselves? Imagine an actor that played a role on a soap opera from the age of 3 through death--who is the "real" person? What about The Truman Show?

Our point, of course, is to expose the fraud of the self for what it is--a diabolical illusion to which we are genetically in thrall, and our obsession with which has led directly and inexorably to the conflict, strife, and extraordinary unhappiness that define the human race.