My cat Sally died yesterday and will be missed. She was perhaps too smart to fully immerse herself in the usual cat hobbies such as suspicious investigation of pieces of furniture that have always been there and reenactments of the evacuation of the American embassy in Saigon every time an unfamiliar person enters the house. I often caught her staring bemusedly at her own front paws, probably thinking that she could accomplish a lot more if they weren’t so evolutionarily retrograde. She was overweight most of her life, which is probably why she developed diabetes at 14, though she managed to wobble on to 18 and a half. In a way though I think she figured life out. Having come to understand early on that food and shelter were guaranteed in perpetuity, she decided to nap through most of the rest of existence. As opposed to my dim-witted younger cat, who stampedes like a maniac at the merest puff of wind. Sometimes life really is simpler when you’re smart.
Archive for the 'Words of Wisdom' Category
What is a cigarette? You might say that it’s a long white cylindrical papery-type object, but I say that it’s a unit of temporo-spatial measurement. I have a friend from my undergraduate days who’s a reprehensibly heavy smoker, to the point where apparently his life expectancy is only about 40 (of course totally refusing to eat vegetables of any kind, even when they’re mixed up in a sauce or something so that you can’t taste them, and having on at least one occasion drifted from cutesy college “oh I’m such an alcoholic” level to actual sad withdrawing-from-school “oh shit, I’m an alcoholic” level surely hasn’t helped), and would always try to plan his walks from one building to another by the number of smokes he could rip through on the way, especially when it was cold. He knew exactly, down to the fraction, how many it took to walk between pretty much any two buildings on campus. Now, America is separated from the rest of the world in our measuring systems for weight, length, volume and so forth. It’s a shame that most Americans, like me, don’t smoke: should we ever cease to share common units of time, it would be such a practical replacement, universal, understood in every corner of the globe–and the French would the natural nation to lead the way, like with the metric system, if only they could get the EU health regulations off their back. Of course, like with quantum physics, the act of measuring affects the situation: you walk around too much measuring distances by smoking, and pretty soon it’ll start to get more difficult to walk around.
Richard III, in a moment of desperation, may have deemed a horse-to-kingdom exchange rate of 1:1 to be fair, and perhaps this is meant, like Tolstoy’s story “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, to show the ultimate fatuity and vanity of wealth and power in a pinch, but it also shows perhaps that the constriction of that over which one has control and the ability to exercise free will can drastically distort one’s assessment of the value of things. In life, as in a casino, not all games are decided by skill. Most people know that the “externalities” of life, the environment, the weather, physical condition, the social network into which we are born, affect not only the events of life but one’s state of mind. Modern Western religions, though not supposing the possibility of total human control over the world, as some technological utopians and Eastern or pseudo-Eastern mystics have in their very different ways, have often offered the possibility indirectly through an divinely ordained connection between human behavior and the workings of fate, whereby ethical or unethical behavior leads to ostensibly unconnected good or bad events happening to the perpetrator. As encouraging as this may potentially be incentive for virtue and justice, the idea sours when individuals and societies become by implication culpable for and punished by every flood, every famine and every death in the family that occurs to them.
In a sense too the ideal of free will can become degraded even in a more pragmatic form. The world burns and breaks all around and the timber of humanity is set crooked. Faced with these disheartening constants that never change, people naturally tend to focus on the problems that can be solved. But while only a part of life may be under our control, the whole of it affects our happiness. Those that forget this and equate the problems that admit of a solution with all the problems of life as a whole, and especially those that believe that solving them will create universal happiness and contentment, indulge in unrealistic and inevitably disappointed expectations, and sometimes dream up , or more often become receptive to the instigations of manipulative cynics acting in the name of, disastrous political utopias. Without this willful blindness to the limitations of life the very connection of political programs with the idea of paradise becomes somewhat ludicrous. As with all ideas, a contrary danger lies within this criticism: that of passivity, acceptance of limitations which are not in fact inevitable. But the mind feels more than it thinks about explicitly, and so its capacity for discontent probably exceeds the bounds of the perfectible, at least for now.
Some thoughts after a couple of days in China:
I don’t know why military people (or at least those designing their uniforms) seem to love hats that are too big for them, whether it is to make their skulls look smaller, or their bodies thinner, or simply to conceal their identity, but I’m pretty sure that with some of them you could catch a nap in bright sunlight without anyone noticing for a while or have them serve in lieu of an umbrella.
There’s something about the gigantism of Shanghai that remains startling even if you have been advised of it in advance. It’s not quite reminiscent of Blade Runner or The Fifth Element (not boron), but it’s close. Pretty much every building you can imagine seems to be twice as tall there as elsewhere. Even the elevated highways seem to go up to 70 or 80 feet in the air instead of 20 or 30.
Speaking of which, when visiting the Oriental Pearl Tower yesterday and joking about its form, especially our Mandarin teacher’s exact words that she was going to take us “up to the second ball” for the view, one of the girls was asking me if Chinese people are even aware of concepts like Freudian imagery. Maybe not, but that is exactly when, if you believe Freud, that kind of thing is most potent, no? This would actually explain a lot.
It’s kind of disorienting to see almost 100% racial homogeneity in any urban tableau, and it’s particularly disorienting to see poor areas of a city filled with Asians. Just throwing that out there.
I don’t know if the day will ever come when I will not have the urge to use chopsticks as a stabbing instrument for food.
People talk about China as being an area of economic boom like the Internet, and if I can extrapolate from my fellow teacher trainees and the Americans I’ve seen in Shanghai so far, I would agree with that in one regard in particular: the subject is currently considered trendy and cool, but the same cannot be said of most of those pioneering the taking advantage of it.
Anyway, more words of less-than-Confucius-like wisdom later.
The most distinctive quality of history is that we know how everything turns out. In one sense this is obviously untrue, since many events or sequences of events begun in the past have yet to be completed, and in any case the division between an event and its consequences that lead one after another up the present and will surely trail on into the future is always to some extent arbitrary. But the sense of the finality of history does not depend upon actual knowledge of the events of the past; even someone living in profound ignorance of all that has gone before must sense in some instinctive way that everything that has happened has somehow led up to the present moment. In this way memory flattens both the anxieties and fears and hopes and ideals that normally animate our minds. One can look back to a gentle landscape of memory now blessed, through hindsight, with an absence of all fear, only to be remonstrated a moment later by the realization that the cloudy utopia of hopes for the future has hardened into the persistently ideal-resistent present (pace Hegel).
There is, in short, nothing in history that can redeem us from the suspicion that our lives are perhaps entirely mechanical affairs, a simple matter of robotic cause and effect. This is the peculiar fatalism of history, propogated upon the absolute necessity that, under certain circumstances, one thing leads to another. Thus it is not just that things happened a certain way but that, really, conditions being as they were they had to. This is the inviolable hand of sufficient cause. David K. Lewis had to defend the notion of alternate universes totally bereft of contact with our own simply to justify the validity of the counter-factual, the notion of “alternative history.” But the sheer counterintuitiveness of this suggests that imagining an alternate present, as opposed to alternate futures, is always bound to be a travesty of the facts.
Yet what redeems history is its connection to the present, to the seeming possibility of exerting some influence upon the workings of the world in the act of passing through time. Everything has its sufficient cause, even personal motives, but it is in no way demonstrated that human actions are rigidly dependent upon the totally predictable, insensate causality of other objects. It is, in fact, the very quality of life that they do not seem to be.
But history still impresses us, not just by the seeming inevitability of the progression of things but also of their ending. It seems to be the universal experience of ideas that they originate in the long distance of anticipation, perhaps fleet briefly into a physical existence in a passing present and then recede from view as they are done away with, even as the totality of creation renews itself. And even in existence one seems to encounter what Joseph Conrad called the inevitable degradation of the ideal through its realization. And even anticipation is really a vision of the past reconstructed and rearranged. The study of history, then, is bound to lead to suspiciousness of any ambition to transcend the progression from future to past through the very thin barrier of living moments. This is why the heroes of a Walter Scott novel, such as one I have just completed, Old Mortality , are never the idealists, who are fanatics in their belief in the absurd notion of being able to find a refuge from time in some imagined living eternity after death. His heroes are rather the stoics who attempt to impress some personal mark of honor or virtue onto the passing moments. For any attempt to found an ideal upon the hope of actually living wholly enveloped within a continuing and undiminishing present, safe from decay or decline, is bound to failure. It is only by focusing on the quality of individual moments, on rendering them valuable in retrospect, rather than on their doubtful perseverence, that life is rendered equanimious, the past satisfying for having been well used rather than discomfiting for being gone.
I often hear people claiming that what Islam really needs is a Martin Luther or a Reformation. I wonder if they really know what they are calling for. In my opinion the so-called Islamists today in many cases have a lot in common with the Protestant Reformers of the 16th century, for they were the major fundamentalists of that era (of whom, let us not forget, the Puritans were an offshoot). In terms of inter-confessional hostility often not a great deal distinguished the Protestants and Catholics of the era, and the Catholics certainly committed their share of heinous crimes: the Spanish Inquisition, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and the Spanish campaign of extermination in the Netherlands spring to mind, to say nothing of the atrocities perpetrated in the New World. But for the most part, except in Spain and the Balkans, where old conflicts with Muslim states continued, it was the Protestants who reawakened religious fanaticism and a spirit of sectarian rancor which had been largely absent since the days of the late Roman Empire. Of course the Protestants had legitimate grievances, but many of the abuses that they wanted to “reform” were of an opposite nature from those condemned by liberal society in religious fanatics today: venality, corruption and a conspicious lack of moral austerity. The Catholic Church had entered a decadent stage, and it is not hard even to identify the liberal Western society of today more with it than with the Protestant fundamentalists who challenged it. Indeed, Islamists often follow an analogous course: they deplore the corruption and venality of leaders of the Muslim world (although there is nothing analogous to the formal institution of the Church in Islam), they arrogate to themselves, not to the clerical authorities, the authority to interpret scripture, and they preach a general return to the austere holiness of the nascent days of the faith. The Reformation and the Renaissance arose from a somewhat similar revolt against ossified social institutions, particularly the Catholic Church, and a desire to bring power back into the fold of common humanity, but the viciousness of the religious wars and persecutions sparked by the Reformation vitiated to a considerable degree the achievements of the Renaissance in beating back dogmatism, and the Reformers returned an intransigent militarism to intellectual life. What Islam needs is not a Luther but an Erasmus, or better yet a Rabelais.
I posted a quote from a leader of the Cambodian Buddhist community which seems to me to have a strong seed of truth above, but I realized that anyone familiar with my intellectual proclivities or who had read this article from which it was excerpted might find it a little inexplicable, since I am not known as much of an enthusiast for Buddhism and the quote only appears in the article in the form of a passing mention to alternative philosophies of mental health in contrast to Western psychiatric approaches. But on the other hand, Britain’s National Health Service is staking a hell of a lot of money (ostensibly) on the premise that so-called “talking” therapy (as opposed to pharmacological, or medication-based, therapy) can greatly improve the mental health of the populace, and while the authors’ tone is not uncritical, since they neglect to cite any pharmacologists or neuropsychologists this random Buddhist cleric is really the only external voice questioning the efficacity of solving mental problems by talking them out.
Make no mistake, I am no follower of Buddhist doctrine. Although I saw a study somewhere claiming that a group of Buddhist monks in Japan are quantifiably the happiest people ever recorded because they have the highest level of stimulation of a particular region of the brain which is supposed to always be stimulated in conjunction with peoples’ professed feelings of happiness or contentment, the normative goals of Buddhism seem to be oriented to anything but happiness. I’ve never been able to accept the premise that life=feeling and feeling=pain, and therefore the ideal state is some soporific state of detachment not perhaps too dissimilar from the sedation of a patient under heavy anesthesia or, better yet, a corpse. So in other words I am not very greatly enamored by the advice to just “don’t think about it” as a general principle. But when it comes to thoughts that make us unhappy or at least symtomize unhappiness, there may be no better way in life.
For I have rarely found, in moments of depression or discontent, that trying to directly work out an intellectual solution to that state accomplishes its end. As I have already suggested, I think very often these splinters of unease are no more than symtoms of an underlying, probably physical, unwellness. So in many cases the very concept of trying to “work out” such an affliction by addressing the ideas that seem to provoke it directly may be inherently absurd. Or to put it another way, perhaps one is no more depressed about something than one is ill about something.
Now, I remember writing once that when I can write about something, it no longer afflicts me. But if anything that serves to indicate that it was never the thought that was the problem, it was a mental condition that seized hold of some discouraging thought as a visible proxy. Cogitation can help one’s mental state, but not I think head-on. Thinking is a form of mental exercise, and just like physical exercise it improves one’s health if done proportionately. But one cannot directly fight a disease by exercising. I think one has more control over the mind, simply because the mind itself is the organ by which we exert feedback control over our bodies. There is a mixture between the mentally manipulable and that which is beyond its control. But the analogy I think at least serves to suggest a sense of the possible limitations. So I concur to some extent with the Buddhist patriarch’s advice of non-responsiveness to that which is painful. After all, is not the very goal of all of these psychological approaches to make it possible, if not not to think about unhappy thoughts at all, at least not to be possessed by them?
It seems like I have had a discussion with just about every educated person I know about Kant’s categorical imperative at least once. I had another such the other day, and it happened to connect with a couple of other things I was thinking about. I have to say that for some time I have found the idea of a priori ethical systems a little arbitrary. When it comes to Kant, it is easy to be misled by his language into thinking that he is postulating a consequentialist or even quasi-utilitarian view of ethics. But this is not true, and his admonition about it being wrong to lie to a would-be murderer about the whereabouts of the person he is seeking to kill because lying is an unacceptable general moral principle should demonstrate that pretty convincingly. So instead there must be some intrinsic connection between moral imperatives like telling the truth and the good.
But if the goal of ethics is ultimately, as I believe, to try to maximize the happiness of the members of a group, or at least to make their individual desires capable of co-existence as much as possible, the categorical imperative manifestly fails to do so, as evidenced by that very example. The famous criticism of Kant by Schopenhauer that “everything is sacrificed to a rage for symmetry,” or in this case consistency, comes to mind. It seems to me that it is necessary to be flexible in one’s principles of action, and careful in balancing what is at stake, or one could find oneself giving directions to a murderer, so to speak. Even if deeds like telling the truth are on the whole the best policy in most cases, one cannot justify the instances in which they are not by reference to those in which they are.
In the process of tsk-tsking the practitioners of “quantum mysticism” Dennis Overbye regurgitates an even more pervasive cliché:
“Take free will. Everything I know about physics and neuroscience tells me it’s a myth. But I need that illusion to get out of bed in the morning. Of all the durable and necessary creations of atoms, the evolution of the illusion of the self and of free will are perhaps the most miraculous. That belief is necessary to my survival.”
I think the question is worth asking: does anyone actually think this way? I’m not just asking rhetorically, because after all I don’t know. The only person I can speak for is myself. But I would venture to say that not a single day of my life have I ever woken up and thought: “Shit, if I don’t have free will I have no reason to get up!” Free will does not really yield to that kind of mental debate, since the only way it makes the slightest bit of difference is if you actually do have it. So in other words even to ask the question as a practical matter is to already presuppose the answer. Personally I don’t have any belief in free will the way most people do, but I don’t think the alternative is determinism either. I don’t think either one really makes sense. It seems to me more likely that our bodies are a series of interconnected physical systems of which the whole mental world of thoughts and perceptions are a side-product. When I am sick I tend to feel depressed, when healthy I generally have a contented outlook on the world. Maybe it makes people feel like ideas are more significant when they attribute these big unsubstantiated material consequences to them. In any case, I have heard far too many people take for granted that various widely but by no means universally held beliefs like God, free will, etc. are somehow intrinsic and necessary to life. Well, there are plenty of ontological agnostics out there, and they seem to manage to carry on.
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