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On Disenchantment

(Revised from a private journal entry on 9/25/2015)

I am alive at a very strange time. My country is deeply polarized and the mass media infects any type of serious discussion with deep cynicism. The more I think it over, the more I find that it may have to do with the over-rationalization of society. We are, as Max Weber pointed out, a society that sees the world as disenchanted.

Whether we accept or reject the notion of a God, we all realize that this God cannot be understood in the way our ancestors understood it. The progression of the empirical sciences, industrialization, and increasing technology has brought us many wonderful advances. Yet, we are left finding ourselves in an increasingly mechanistic world.

In a time of such great disenchantment, we can still see the human heart yearning for something beyond. In my own life I have witnessed many people (including myself) reaching out in different areas to find this something.

I think this disenchantment is a real problem, but I think the biggest problem is a misunderstood solution. We cannot find the solution to this problem with more money, nicer houses, or increased social status. I have personally found this re-enchantment by spending time in nature and observing it.

Get trapped outside in a storm, or come across a group of animals in the wild as they watch your every move. This will undercover the enchantment behind the facade. Watch the waves crash on a shore during a sunset, or slow, silent snowfall at night. All of these situations can be explained empirically. We know why the snow falls or why waves crash, but what we are getting at here is much more basic.

What we are talking bout here is something that requires a being-there, or for lack of a better word, a subject. Being-there in such moments cannot be simply quantified because it requires that which cannot be counted. I can’t help but hear the words of Martin Heidegger in such situations. Have we forgotten what is taking place for us in every moment? Have we forgotten our own being? It certainly appears so. We have created a world based on empirical sciences and rationalization which, despite all the wonders it has given us, we have allowed to dominate our thinking. We can now, even while proclaiming to be rooted deeply in religion, use cold-calculation to allow the poor the suffer, to allow non-citizens to be slaughtered, to mock the pain of others, and to neglect the ongoing destruction of the natural world.

When I was younger I was very opposed to organized religion and religious thought, however this has changed somewhat. I feel a sense of the mystical, of the enchanted, in the everyday. It is not always present or easy to attain, but it is there if I pay attention. I fear losing this perspective. I fear even more what a society without this understanding is capable of doing.

 

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What the Hell is Philosophy? Part II: Hume and the Self

Hume Bro Meme

Descartes’ statement “I think, therefore I am,” seems pretty fundamental.  There is no way to deny one is having thoughts; so naturally, there is no way to deny that one exists.  The statement seems basic enough that no one would likely take issue with it. However, some have taken issue with one particular part of this statement; the “I.”

When you refer to yourself as “I” what are you referring to? At first this question seems bizarre.  When I refer to me I’m referring to myself. However, what is this “I” you refer to, specifically? Many people would respond with something like “I am my body.”  However, our bodies are always changing. Our cells replenish themselves fast enough that the body we are born with is very different from the body we have as adults. And what if we lose a limb or two? How can we say we are our body if our body doesn’t even have the same parts?

Others might say something like “I am my mind” or “I am both my body and my mind,” but here we run into similar problems.  How can we identify ourselves with these things when they are constantly changing? We can’t even really define “my body” or “my mind” without having to explain away all the dramatic changes that take place throughout a lifetime.  Even identifying ourselves by saying something like “I am the being that remembers things that have happen to them,” gives us problems.  If our memories make us who we are, then what about the things that happened which we don’t remember? Who did they happen to? Certainly not us, if we are defined by having memories of our past experiences.

When we talk about the “I” or “myself,” we talk about it in a way that indicates that although our bodies and minds might change, underneath it all, there is some fundamental, unchanging, me-ness.  It’s not just a random bunch of changes, its changes to someone underneath. Some have argued that this self does not exist.

The Self

Suppose you bought a new car which you plan to keep for decades.  As time goes by you replace a tire here and a light fixture there. However, one day after looking over your receipts you realize that every single part of your car has been replaced over the years.  From the engine to the tail-lights, you realize that this is a completely re-built car.  Is this the same car you bought all those years ago? Technically we would have to say no, but our everyday, common-sense tells us that, in some way, this IS the same car we purchased all those years ago.  It’s the same car underneath, but with changes.

It’s situations like this that led David Hume to believe that the self does not exist.  Hume believed that the human mind created the concept of the self by accident due to the way we experience the world.

Imagine that there are two photos before you side by side.  The one on the left is of a bright red apple, with waxy skin.  The one on the right is of a core of an apple. If you were asked “Are these the same?” Most likely your answer would be “No.”  However, if you watched someone take a bright red apple and eat it down to its core you might be more inclined to say “Yes, that’s the same apple, it’s just been changed.”  Although one could just as easily say the uneaten apple is not the same apple as the eaten one, we do not categorize it this way.  Rather, we say it is the same apple underneath, but just with changes to some of it’s properties.

Because humans experience the world in time, our minds naturally think of objects as permanent. Rather than viewing a car with a replaced windshield as a new car, we consider it to be the same old car, but with a change. Likewise, Hume thought we applied the way we look at the outside world to ourselves. Rather than viewing ourselves as a group of changing qualities, we always consider ourselves to be the same old person, but with changes.

The problem is that when we try to pinpoint this underlying “I” or “Me-ness” we come to realize that there’s nothing to point to. Hume, and many Buddhists, believe that the word “I” is just something we use to communicate effectively with others; however the word doesn’t actually refer to anything specifically. Hume believes that what we experience is a continuous flow of perceptions and emotions that replace one another in rapid succession, yet we mistakenly attribute some underlying “I” to whom these things happen.

“When I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception.” -David Hume

Furthermore, there are many instances in which we find ourselves with almost a complete lack of self-awareness. When listening to music or watching a film we lose our sense of self and just experience a rush of sensations and emotions. Self-awareness actually involves a stepping back from the flow of these experiences.

The concept that the self does not exist opens up a few possibilities. How can you place limits on yourself and what type of person you are or are not when, in fact, you aren’t any type of person at all? You are someone who is just as likely to stay the same as you are to change radically. It also implies that there may be something worth investigating in those instances where you are not aware of your self. Those times where you lose yourself in a daydream, or a song, or a film might be a more fundamental version of yourself than you had ever realized.

-TheMinorDrag

What the Hell is Philosophy? Part I: Descartes

This entry is the first in a series of entries about major ideas of major philosophers.  The more I have learned about philosophy, the more interested I have become. For this reason, I’d like to share some important ideas from various philosophers.  I think a blog is a pretty good way to do this because when being asked “What is philosophy about?” I’ve found myself rambling with fits and starts way too often.  Hopefully this will be valuable to others as well as myself.

There are many places one could start when trying to explain the history of philosophy, but I have chosen to start with Rene Descartes.  Though Descartes is nowhere near the first philosopher, his philosophy marks what many consider to be the beginning of modern western philosophy and seems a good place to start.

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Rene Descartes (1596-1650)

Even if you’re not familiar with Descartes, you’ve probably heard a phrase of his repeated hundreds of times without ever really knowing what it means.  This phrase is “I think, therefore I am.”  I know I had heard this phrase tons of times, but until the last few years I really had no idea what it meant.  This entry will help explain what Descartes meant by this and what it was he was really trying to get at.

Descartes lived in a peculiar time in history.  The Earth was no longer thought to be flat, the “New World” had been discovered and it seemed that much of what humans thought they knew was slowly being turned on its head.  In an atmosphere such as this, Descartes realized that much of what we say we “know,” we actually do not know for sure.  Descartes began a process of radical doubt in which he wanted to find what in the world we could be absolutely certain about.  Once he found something that could not be doubted, Descartes felt that we could begin to build a foundation upon which we could be certain about things in the world.  But first…we must discard anything that is not absolutely certain.

Descartes was mainly concerned with two areas of philosophy; Metaphysics and Epistemology.  Metaphysics is concerned with answering the question “What is reality?” while Epistemology is concerned with answering the question “How can we gain knowledge about reality?”  (It sounds weird, and bizarrely simple, but that’s the point.)

By beginning the process of doubting everything that you could not be completely certain of, Descartes immediately ran into a big problem.  Most of the information we get about the world around us is from our senses.  It is our sight, hearing, touch and taste that tell us almost everything we seem to know about the world around us.  However, Descartes realized that we cannot be certain of the information our senses give us.

If you’ve ever heard someone call your name when they actually had not, seen a mirage of water on a hot highway, or had a very vivid dream, you can understand why Descartes thinks that we cannot trust the senses.  Our senses, at least sometimes, give us bad information.  When we put a straw in a glass of water, our sight tells us that once the straw hits the water it shifts its direction.  However, we know that this is not the case.  We use reason to tell us that our eyes are mistaken and the straw is actually straight even though it looks otherwise.  It’s situations like this that forced Descartes to believe that human reason is a much better way to gain knowledge than using our senses (this is known as Rationalism).

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So, Descartes was forced to scrap our senses.  Since they sometimes deceive us, we cannot be certain of the information they give us about the world.  As Descartes went on he thought that there were certain things we could be certain about.  Geometry and mathematics seem so basic to the world we should be certain of them; after all 2+2 will always equal 4.  However Descartes, being a religious man, had to question even this.  Isn’t it possible that God, or an evil demon, is actually deceiving us all the time?  What if 2+2 actually equals 5, but every time we do the math God steps in to deceive us?  After all, we are only humans, and it is possible than an all powerful being is constantly deceiving us for their own purpose (Matrix style).

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To cut to the chase, Descartes got to the point where it seemed as if there really was nothing we could ever be certain of. The world around us is in doubt, the thoughts in our mind and mathematics are in doubt; what else is left?  However, there was something left; our thoughts.  Even if all of Descartes thoughts are being deceived by God…there is no way to deny that he is having thoughts.  If he is having thoughts, then obviously he must exist.

“I think, therefore I am.”

With this assertion, Descartes was able to find the only thing he felt human beings could be completely certain of.  We can be completely certain that we are having thoughts, which means we can be completely certain that we exist.

However, Descartes didn’t end there; he would go on to attempt to prove that the physical world does exist as well as God.  However, this development was huge in the history of science and philosophy.  Descartes believed that although humans live in both the physical world (our bodies, the objects around us), we also live in the mental world (our thoughts).  Descartes felt that the mental world was much more important than the physical, and believed that if the physical world went out of existence our minds would continue to exist because they did not exist in the same “substance” or world.

This distinction, known as the mind-body distinction, has had a huge impact on Western civilization by creating a thick dividing line between the non-thinking, physical world and the non-physical, thinking world.

All in all, Descartes gave humanity the idea that we are, above everything else, “thinking things.”  We may exist in a physical world, but at the end of the day we are really just minds.  This idea, along with Descartes’ method of doubting, would go on to influence philosophy, science and civilization for centuries.

-TheMinorDrag

(This entry is a bit long, and perhaps a bit dry, but it helps to know some Descartes to understand other philosophers)




Why I am a Vegetarian

One issue I’ve thought a lot about over the last year or two is vegetarianism/veganism.  I’ve been sympathetic with the ethical arguments of vegetarians for quite some time, but I’ve never felt the connection to animals that so many vegetarians seem to have.  I suppose I’ve never really thought of myself as an “animal person.”  My approach has always been something like, “Yes, it’s terrible that we kill animals for food and clothes, but what can you do?  This is just the way the world works.”  I find this viewpoint more and more distant these days. The major reasons for this is my interest in philosophy and my introduction to the ideas of Rutgers Professor Gary Francione (thanks Rach :)).

Some people are able to construct their concepts of morality and ethics almost on their own; I am not one of those people.  Studying philosophy was the boost I needed.  For me it was like having an annoying two year-old always asking “but why?” each time I had a definite thought about something.  I’d think “well this is wrong” and the two year-old would ask “but why?”  When I’d reply “because of this” it would interrupt with yet another “but why is that wrong?”  Thankfully, this “philosophy two year-old” only asked useful questions and didn’t require any sort of baby-sitting. (I’m a terrible parent, I know)  It was this type of interrogation that made me look very seriously at the “animal issue” for the first time.

“You must have the courage to critically examine certain prejudices you have, certain presuppositions you have, certain assumptions you have and decide courageously to let them go because they are no longer persuasive, they are no longer convincing, they are no longer warranted. (…)  That’s in part what it means to be human.”                     –Dr. Cornel West

It took me a while to really get to the issue of what I (and my annoying two year-old) thought about this topic.  Occasionally going back and adding counter-arguments that I hadn’t considered before and then returning later to argue against those points.  It was a slow process.  The following is my line of thought on this issue and why I no longer eat meat.  I’m sure this won’t be very convincing to others, but it has convinced me.

Annoying 2 year-old:  Is it wrong to kill humans?  If so, why?

Me:  Of course it’s wrong to kill humans.  I think it’s wrong because, once you are a conscious human you should control your own fate and no one should be able to end your life.

Annoying 2 year-old:  Is killing a human different (ethically) from killing an animal? If so, why?

Me:  Of course killing a human is ethically different from killing an animal.  I think it’s different because humans have great minds which have created languages, cities and have navigated the cosmos.  No other animal can do that, so there’s an ethical difference between taking a human or animal life.

Annoying 2 year-old:  Can all humans do those things you mentioned?  If not, is there still an ethical difference between killing humans and animals?

Me:  Well, no.  Not all humans can do these things.  However, all humans have the potential to do these things.  The fact that humans have the potential to do these great things with their minds makes taking their lives ethically different from taking an animals life.

Annoying 2 year-old:  Is it really true that all humans have the potential to do these great things?

Me:  Well, no.  I suppose not all humans have this potential.  Some may have injuries or be profoundly mentally disabled which would prevent them from having the potential to do these great things.

Annoying 2 year-old:  Is it wrong to kill these people?  Why or why not?

Me:  Of course it’s wrong to kill these people.  It is their being that makes it wrong to kill them.  These people have a subjective experience of some sort.  They have a point of view and a certain perspective in the world.  They are not rocks or coffee tables, they are subjects.  I think this gives them a certain “right” to be alive which we should try to respect.

Annoying 2 year-old: (Grinning creepily) Do animals have a subjective experience?  If so, is it still okay to kill them?

Me:  Yes, animals do have a subjective experience.  This makes it wrong to kill them.

So, there’s my line of thought on the subject.  Obviously if a bear is charging at me I’m not going to yell, “Wait!  Don’t you understand that we both have a subjective experience?!”  However, I feel that I don’t really have a justification for eating them.  Professor Gary Francione made a really great point on this topic.  When it came out that Michael Vick was involved in dog fighting, it seemed like the majority of Americans were outraged, but in a way this outrage doesn’t make sense.  We were all outraged because Michael Vick had contributed to the torture and deaths of dogs for no better reason than that it had brought him some sort of pleasure.  But, I don’t think that this is different from eating meat.  While eating meat I contributed to the torture and death of animals for no better reason than the pleasure that eating them brought me.  The only differences were the type of animal and the type of pleasure involved.

With all that being said, I think it’s a bad idea to be a Nazi on the subject.  Acting that way is, at best, counterproductive.  However, this is something that I’ve spent some time thinking about and it’s something I feel is important to think about.

“Humans — who enslave, castrate, experiment on, and fillet other animals– have had an understandable penchant for pretending animals do not feel pain.  A sharp distinction between humans and ‘animals’ is essential if we are to bend them to our will, wear them, eat them — without any disquieting tinges of guilt or regret.  It is unseemly of us, who often behave so unfeelingly toward other animals, to contend that only humans can suffer.  The behavior of other animals renders such pretensions specious.  They are just too much like us.”     –Carl Sagan

-TheMinorDrag

Thinking about Speaking

Something I’ve been thinking a lot about over the last few weeks is qualia or the subjective experience.

As a fan of Carl Sagan and all things science-nerdy, I have a healthy appreciation for objective knowledge.  When I was younger and came to the realization that I didn’t believe in God(s) or the afterlife, I became really fascinated with the idea of empirical knowledge.  Empirical knowledge is obviously a great thing to have, but I never gave much thought to subjective experience even though it’s there all the time.

If someone came to you and said that they had never seen the color red before you could try to explain it to them in a few ways.  You could try to compare it to other things; red is the color of apples, red is the ember of fire and etc.  However these comparisons probably wouldn’t be of much help as they’ve never seen the color red before.  Even if you were to give them the range of wavelengths that we consider to be the color red, this also wouldn’t help.

 

“Ohh that rose is really poppin’ over there at 400 terahertz, how pretty”   -No one, ever.

 

Thankfully, most of us have experienced redness before so we’re all on the same page.  The interesting thing is that even though we all know what “redness” is, it is indescribable.  What we experience when we see the color red is actually an experience.  Granted, apples and roses would still be red whether or not human beings were here to see them or not, but that redness that we understand would not exist because it is a product of our eyes seeing it and our minds interpreting it.  It’s similar in music.  Music is just vibrations through the air, music is also notes on a staff, but music is not just that to us.  Our experience of music and color unlocks an entirely different perspective that would not exist without us.  A perspective, at least from our vantage point, that is incredibly valuable.

The more I think about my own subjective experiences, I can’t help but think about the way I use language.  I say things, like everyone else, without really thinking much about it.  This is fine as a starting point, but I’ve noticed that I’ll use cliched phrases or profanity as a statement in itself.

 

“That movie was dumb.”  -Myself, all the time.

 

It reminds me of a movie I saw quite a few years ago called, “Waking Life.”  It’s not the greatest movie I’ve ever seen, but it touched on some interesting points;

When language was first used it was for simple ways to communicate on how to survive.  You create a word for water so you can all discuss where water is or is not.  You create a word for the tiger so that you can warn each other when you see one and so on.  It seems like this sort of communication helped tremendously to keep us out of harm’s way.  So much so that we were able to create words for very abstract concepts.  Love, hate, joy, pain, freedom and etc.  This level of communication is very different.

Communication becomes so abstract that we need more information to even begin to understand what is really being said.  We have a basic idea of what these concepts are but our personal experiences heavily influence our understanding of them.  I noticed I had a sense of frustration when I communicated with other people on certain topics.  In my head I knew exactly what my thoughts were, but when I tried to turn them into words I realized I was just using clichéd phrases without getting deeper into why I thought or felt a certain way.  So I’ve made it a point over the last few months to try to articulate my thoughts as best as I can.  Hmm…yeah.  For a post almost entirely about communication I’ll end it awkwardly and abruptly. It’s a process.

Here’s a clip of Kat Williams making a really good point on this topic and being hilarious.

-TheMinorDrag