Tuesday, November 30, 2010

And I will want you more

So I just watched Black Snake moan while drinking an odd mixture called Tilt, and it got me thinking about music. I was looking through my high school transcripts earlier, and I did better in music theory than pretty much anything else. Music theory ties together intuition, passion, and logic, in a way that nothing other than philosophy really can, and perhaps more than is possible even for philosophy. On paper it's all applied mathematics, though it's meaningless unless you can hear it and feel it. Of course, the passion and feeling were there long before the math historically, though biologists, neurologists, and physiologists will strive to tell you more with each new experiment how the passion and feeling come about. If "spirit" means anything to me, it is what is nourished by music, and yet music connects the objective to the subjective in a way that is hard to understand but impossible to forget. This might make it one of the best reasons to believe that there is no fundamental division between soul and body, nothing that really separates us from the world that we are undeniably a part of.

I hope I get to be one of those rare philosopher/scientist/mathematicians who prefer blues, folk, and rock to Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart. For me, it's all part of being a good animal- and being a good animal is part of being a good person.

But more on that later!

Monday, November 29, 2010

An objection to Sam Harris's asshattery

Posting a little late, but OK. I've wanted to write about a lot today, but if nothing else, I want to offer an objection to something Sam Harris (don't you just want to smack him?) has been saying about morality. One of his basic starting points is that all moral judgments boil down to a concern about the experience of conscious beings. I want to offer what I think is a pretty good objection to this proposition.

I'm going to pose a kind of benign Matrix-like scenario: Suppose all of humanity, by their own volition or by the choice of a ruling person or class, were put to sleep and installed in a grand space-ark capable of piloting itself through empty regions of space until the heat-death of the universe, fueling itself on what it can find (hydrogen and oxygen from planets, moons, asteroids, and comets maybe) in the course of its journey. The humans on board will spend the rest of their lives sustained in peak physical health and in sleep by machines, while a perfect simulation of human life is pumped into their heads; maybe even a life better than human life can really be. Their simulated world is shared, allowing them to carry on genuine relationships with one another. Nothing is denied them, and they can even progress in the arts and science as far as they are inclined without disrupting the simulation. None of the people aboard the ark are aware that they inhabit a simulation, or that the world they experience is an artificial one.

There are a thousand reasons why this can't happen and wouldn't work. But for the sake of the scenario, suppose it does. All of what we value in conscious experience is accounted for, for our ark denizens. Sam Harris appears to have nothing to complain about here. By every measure I recall him having suggested, all of the humans in existence are flourishing, perhaps at their peak. The question now is, is this scenario a good one? Would this be a good course for humanity to take, in a moral sense?

Some people might say yes. I am definitely not one of them. From within the scenario, of course, I would not be able to object to it, but regarding the conception from outside, I see it as a pretty awful fate. For myself I can say, and I think many people would agree with me, that while the quality of the experience of conscious beings is certainly part of what is important in a moral sense, it isn't the only thing: I want to be right. I want what I experience to be real. I want to know, as far as I can, what's really going on, and I want the significance of my life never to be bounded or enclosed, except by the finiteness of its own inertia. Are these moral concerns? For me, they are; they are commitments that I hold, and they are reasons why I would reject such a scenario in principle, and encourage other people to reject it along with me. They are moral concerns, and they are not altogether dependent on judgments about the quality of the experiences of conscious beings.

Such is one possible objection to one of Sam Harris's premises. There are many others. The fact that he's kind of a smarmy dickhead is not one of them, but I don't want to close this entry without pointing that out.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Death is the question.

Getting ready for karaoke with Ashley, listening to some pretty great music. It's reminding me of something I expect to find myself writing about a lot here: Death, and how the eventuality, possibility, and option of death can bring things into perspective. Briefly, believing that we just get this one life, and remembering that this is so, can really make small things seem small, and remind us of what really matters. How can we maintain that kind of perspective without having to think about death all the time, or being morose or anxious about it?

This is one of the concerns of mortality, which is a big focus for me, and the answers to it are to be found (I think) in appreciation, enjoyment, love, creativity, and humor. The meanings these words hold for me will be unfolding in good time, but they are my cardinal virtues (I don't mean to say that I have all of these virtues to any decent degree), the things that make life good and are capable of justifying life to us as we turn to question it, the attitudes and experiences that renew life and make it worthwhile in the face of hardship, tragedy, and boredom.

There you have a peek at my hardcore existentialist spiritual philosophy. More to come.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Giving God a shot

Hmmmmmm, looks like I'm doing a last-minute update.

I've been listening to Deepak Chopra being humiliated in public on this delightful youtube playlist, and it's been making me think about God.

Atheists (one of which I am) are in the habit of talking about God in the silliest terms they can think of- as though to believe in God is to believe in a magic man in the sky whose zombie son died to save you from spending eternity (of which less than 10,000 years have gone by so far) in his burning cavern beneath the earth. There's a place for this kind of coarse mockery, but it doesn't constitute an argument against the existence of God in general or the worthiness of the conception, and if this kind of caricature is the beginning and the end of one's thoughts about God, then one has failed to appreciate the depth and subtlety the idea can achieve, and failed to earn credit for having truly confronted it.

I have tried to build up, in my mind, the best case I can for the kind of God that I could most respect. Imagine with me, if you will, that all of the competing religions we know to exist among all of Earth's peoples are driven, not only by anxiety over mortality, lust for power, and sheer ignorance, but also by a genuine encounter with what might be called "the numenous", or "the transcendent", or "the ground of all being"- or any of the various titles that have been given to God or the level of existence that God is taken to signify. It might be said that this encounter is what inspires us to rise above the level of selfish striving and seek meaning in our connections with other people, with nature, and with this even deeper essence that we might call God, to look upon all creatures with respect, with compassion, and, when we can manage it, with love. In this way, we can understand God as an ultimate reality that is not outside of us, but rather which permeates and transcends each and all of us, and all of space and time, acting not as a dictator or tinkerer, but as an inspiration to evolve to ever greater degrees of good will and creativity, whenever we are open to it. Worship becomes less a way of getting a personal entity to do things or pay attention to us or feel better about itself, and more a way of experiencing the God which is the unity of all things, sharing that experience with others, and reinforcing in ourselves the virtues it is always ready to inspire.

Is that something I believe in? Not especially, but I can certainly respect beliefs of that kind when held by others (and there are people who believe in just that sort of thing), and I think that conception of God can get by relatively well under any atheist's critique. Its only fault, as far as I can see, is that there's no good reason to believe in it. Of course, even the notion of "good reason" is not one that can be precisely pinned down.

What I like about respectable forms of theism, such as the one I've outlined above, is that they are ways of acknowledging, with genuine humility, that our experience as conscious living creatures is ultimately one of mystery, that the ineffable will always have a place in it, and that art, myth, and ritual are more ready means to express it than head-on rational explanations and descriptions.

Thursday, November 25, 2010


Hello world! I am an entirely unemployed, badly undereducated, relatively new resident of Wichita, KS. For the past ten years, I have put a lot of effort into developing a spiritual and philosophical outlook that could satisfy me, and that effort continues today. This blog is meant to be part of that effort, but it's also a way to keep myself writing, thinking, communicating, and answering the intellectual and existential challenges that really interest me. You might read here about my great spiritual and philosophical project, or just what I happened to do today. In any case, I plan to write at least one entry in this blog every day.
Welcome to the test post!