Friday, December 3, 2010

Neither Owed Nor Promised

In my next few posts I will be posting some things that I have up elsewhere, just because I think it will be helpful for me to have them in one place and be able to refer back to them easily. They are statements of my basic beliefs on subjects that are important to me, and I plan to build on them in the course of this blog. This first one was originally one of my facebook notes. It had the same title as this entry. Here it is:

A lot of you have been hearing from me about my big philosophical, spiritual, literary project, but almost none of you have seen me actually write anything, or heard about any of my ideas. This is because, for better or worse, I don't like to put anything out there unless it's up to my unrealistic critical standards, and I haven't managed to perfect all of my ideas or my ability to express them to my satisfaction. For the sake of discussion, though, I do want to write something short and sweet about my understanding of reality and the place that I and all of my fellow humanbeasts occupy in it. This is just an opinion piece and I urge you to take it as seriously as its bibliography is long. Many of you might be disappointed with my thoughts on this subject, finding them depressing or narrow or just rather staunchly opposed to your own worldview, but I am not here to proselytize, and we can respect each other as well as friends should without having to agree.

I think that all of my fellow humanbeasts and I are members of a species of animal that evolved here on Earth without any purpose or plan. I think that qualities such as consciousness, thought, intention, will, emotion, rationality, purpose, and meaning are contingent upon a larger, impersonal, indifferent reality of which we and everything we experience are a part, rather than being fundamental or independent. I think that those qualities I listed are embodied qualities of living organisms and they effect the world only by effecting those organisms' behavior. I am as far as I can be from believing that thoughts "manifest" or that they "attract" or "become" things on their own. I do not think there is any plan or purpose behind reality as a whole, or any consciousness creating or pervading it. I do not think the positions of stars and planets have any necessary or meaningful relationship to the personalities or futures of individual humanbeasts or their societies. When people try to talk to me about quantum physics, I immediately stop listening unless they are physicists. Crystals do not heal you. When you die, you just die. Energy is a number that scientists and engineers use to analyze and predict the behavior of physical systems. If I were to personify the world I believe that I live in, I would say that its most salient features were its heartbreaking beauty, its astonishing brilliance, its obsessive regularity, its comprehensive psychopathy, and its incurable insanity.

Please do not take from this that I think science has all of the answers, or that I think everything is, or eventually will be, explained through science and "reason". For one thing, while science can tell us how the world behaves, it cannot tell us how we should behave. Once we identify our moral commitments, science can help us stay true to them, but it cannot establish them for us or ultimately tell us which ones are the best. That will always be up for discussion, and I hope that kind of discussion will always flourish among us. Furthermore, science rests upon concepts that may not be ultimately sound, and in fact I suspect that they are not. Basic concepts such as space, time, substance, and causation have been amazingly useful for us, but scientists have discovered (and philosophers before them strongly suspected) that there are things we are simply not cognitively equipped to imagine or conceptualize. The dance of the electron, the center of a black hole, the earliest moment of the physical universe, and the nature of consciousness may be examples of ways in which reality behaves that we simply are not capable of understanding. Reality seems to have features that we not only do not understand, but are constitutionally incapable of understanding- that is to say, it may be fundamentally mysterious.

But if reality is fundamentally mysterious, why do I not think there is room in all that mystery for all of those things I said I don't believe in? Why might there not be all-pervading consciousness and crystal healing and astrological influences and even governing deities, if it is conceded that there are things which are forever beyond our understanding? It may not be possible to rule out such notions conclusively, but I don't think there are any good reasons to accept them (keep in mind that we could argue all day about what qualifies as a "good reason") and there are good reasons not to. These include the metaphorical and anthropocentric nature of human understanding, our useful but ultimately errant intuitions about the world (for example, the ancient assumption that non-living solid objects remain still unless they are falling or being pushed), the weight of false and irrational traditions, and the powerful influence of plain wishful thinking. When these are combined with the willingness of many humanbeasts to make a living selling bullshit to other humanbeasts, those of us who care about truth find powerful incentives to adopt a critical attitude toward pretty much every concept and claim that we encounter.

To sum up, I see myself and all of us as finite, contingent, vulnerable, tragic creatures existing entirely within a vast, impersonal, and indifferent reality. This sounds dour and gloomy, but the whole of reality is not the focus of most of my thinking. What matters most to me is not the deity I don't believe in or the control I don't have or the inevitable cessation of my awareness, but rather the enjoyment, appreciation, and ongoing significance of the life I am living, and the good and beautiful people I am fortunate enough to know and care about. I do not live in THE UNIVERSE, I live in this city, I am a part of this community, and in this setting that is meaningful and real to me I can make a difference that matters in the only way anything really does: I can have a hand in the grand, ongoing effort to make this finite, uncertain life worth living for all of us.

I'll have a lot more to say in the future, but I think this is a good place to stop for now. If anyone has actually read this far, thank you.

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