Tuesday, November 27. 2007
Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has a blog that I've been reading for about as long as I have been blogging myself. I started reading it because he seemed to have the blogging thing down -- he posted every day, he had a good style for online writing, and he was clearly very popular. He also boldly experimented with philosophic ideas in print, which is something I aspired to do myself. I think I learned some things from him, which is why I want to do him the favor of giving him the link. He also routinely exasperated me -- not with his opinions but his seeming inability to write about anything without smirking. He begged to not be taken seriously, even when it was clear from his philosophic content that he wanted very much to be taken seriously. Occasionally he would forward stupid ideas, and people would bash him for a stupid idea, and then he would mock his critics for not having a sense of humor. I would have enjoyed his intellectual tinkering more if he could have taken a real stand occasionally. There is a subtle distinction between having fun with ideas and making fun of ideas, and Adams has an unfortunate tendency to make people feel like he is mocking them for having the temerity to have a real opinion.
I was especially interested in Adam's blog because he wrote openly about his motivations and his business model for the blog. He made a "trivial" amount of money from the advertising, but he hoped to publish the best content in a book. He did indeed publish Stick to Drawing Comics, Monkey-Brain!, a best-of collection from the blog, but then he got pilloried by some of his fans for commercializing content that used to be free on the Internet. Adams wrote about the experience in the Wall Street Journal: "I inadvertently set the market-price for my non-Dilbert writing at zero. Oops." Even though his Dilbert empire has profited from giving the cartoon away on the internet, he feels burned enough by the blog experience that he recently declared he would blog less frequently, since the only benefit he seems to get from it is the artistic freedom. As Bob Dylan once said to an intrusive fan: "Just because you like my music doesn't mean I owe you anything." Adams seems hopeful but extremely skeptical about the wisdom of giving away intellectual content online, especially for the music industry.
What can we learn from all this:
Monday, November 26. 2007
The teacher in my audio course on ancient Greek philosophy freely admits that many people in his class have an instinctive dislike for the moral relativism of the sophists. But he pushes back with an appeal to our notion of democracy. Athens, where all the sophists were hanging out, was a democracy, too. Democracy embodies almost exactly the humanist notions of Protagoras: mankind is indeed the measure of all things, because if we need to decide anything, we take a vote. Democracy puts tremendous faith in popular opinion, one of the most relative and changing things you can imagine. So, if you're going to spit on relativism, you also have to square up your absolutism with our notions of democracy, and why democracy is a good thing.
(According to Jay Heinrichs' Thank You for Arguing, the professor is using a technique of classic Greek rhetoric -- he positions the argument as a matter of what you most identify with. "If you hate relativism, then you must also hate democracy . . . but you love democracy, so you must at least tolerate relativism." The sophists, who were also usually teachers of rhetoric, would approve.)
Of course, not everyone is an enormous fan of democracy, even in the United States. Recently the fashionable opinion is to have a measured cynicism about democracy and voting: "It's all big money and special interests and my vote won't make a difference, it's all BS propagated by the Man to hold us down while tricking us into thinking we're not being held down." Richard Rose was especially cynical about politicians and the whole notion that you could "arrive at the truth by voting on it."
Nonetheless, "democracy" is predominantly a sacred thing in America, so much so that we fight wars and level trade sanctions over it. What makes democracy so good, in spite of its relativistic rap? The strongest argument, and still the best one as far as I can tell, is: "It sucks less than all the other systems." Dictatorships and oligarchies inevitably lead to massive abuses of power, enriching the few and oppressing the rest. Democracy defuses power sufficiently that, while it might not get that much done, at least it does the least amount of harm. This argument is especially popular with the Libertarians and the Republicans, who generally agree that the best government is the smallest possible government.
Another argument, equally compelling, is "the wisdom of the markets." Even as we generally trust free markets to establish more-or-less fair and accurate pricing for goods, we trust an open market for political power to come up with a more-or-less consistently acceptable laws and policies. Notice that you don't have to believe that markets are always right to accept that they are intelligent and probably smarter than any single human being. That sort of "good enough" heuristic is probably what we need for governance. It's certainly not going to arrive at Truth, but it stands a decent chance of coming up with a government we can tolerate.
While democracy is friendly to relativism, it certain doesn't exclude absolutism, either. Even a bunch of individuals who all think they are Right can still agree that their best chance of Getting Along lies in finding common ground they can all agree on, and that democracy offers the a path to finding such common ground without anyone getting killed. Lots of things that we lump under the rubric of "democracy" -- the rule of law, the preservation of individual rights, property rights -- are more absolutist than relativist. The fact that we arrived at most of these principles throughÂ a democratic process is accidental. We love freedom because freedom is good, not just because everyone else thinks freedom is good.
Democracy at its core is supported by certain absolutist principles: we believe that peace is better than war, that disagreements are more profitably resolved by discourse rather than force, that governments exist for the benefit of the individual and not the other way around. Democracy is not the embracing of true relativism, but rather the practical application of collective wisdom.
Sunday, November 25. 2007
As Kenny points out in the comments:
Agreed. If you believe in the notion of right and wrong in any meaningful way, then those morals have to come from somewhere, and the task of the philosopher is to get in touch with that source. And I agree with Kenny that the sophists have an impossible task, trying to concoct a purely relative morality.
So where do our morals come from, if we're so sure that they are real and not mere opinion? Plato and Kant took the mere existence of these concepts to be proof of a priori knowledge, something that comes to us completely apart from our empirical experience in the world. The mere fact that anything is real outside of material experience is cause for rejoicing, because it holds out hope for all the non-material things we would like to believe in: God, an immortal soul, etc. In fact, Plato and Kant and C.S. Lewis and a host of others take these a priori concepts as the most immediate and directly knowable evidence that there is a God. Where did the notion of right come from? Well, not from anywhere in this plane . . . it must have come from something beyond all of creation. Sounds like the work of a deity.
I'm inclined to agree, though I don't think it's a slam-dunk argument for the existence of God. I do sense that there is something like Plato's forms, realities that transcend the physical world. One of those realities is consciousness itself. The very fact that I am aware, that I can even utter the words "I am", is something completely apart from material reality. If there is a reality that transcends the physical world, something that we might call "spiritual", then my money is on awareness as the most promising line of inquiry. But morality is equally good as a koan for contemplation. Both force you to strain your perception of something that can't be directly perceived, though they are continually experienced.
The only person to cast even a shadow of doubt on that approach (for me, at least)Â is Steven Pinker. He casts his lot with the sociobiologists who see the potential that our a priori concepts like justice or selfhood are merely neural mechanisms with survival advantages that evolved with the rest of our big brains. He makes a pretty good case in books like How the Mind Works and The Blank Slate. Even he, however, does not fall headlong into moral relativism; he allows for the possibility that morality is an absoluteÂ truth that the mind has evolved to discover, just as it has discovered mathematics. In that sense, he's almost a Pythagorean, seeing in the mind the capacity to grasp transcendent realities.
In any case, I wind up doing what Socrates himself does. I can't tell you what goodness itself is, because it seems to come from a place I can't point to, the same formless void from which even my sense of myself emerges. All I can do is keep wandering around, asking people, "What is virtue?" and watching their eyes look off in the distance as they themselves plunge back into the source of their experience.
Saturday, November 24. 2007
The Greek philosophy audio course I'm listening to is now going through the Sophists, which means we're in the ancestral homeland of moral relativism. Ever since Protagoras declared that "man is the measure of all things," peopleÂ kept up a steady debate about whether values were really true or merely the inventions of particular cultures.Â Â
In my spiritual circles, about the worst thing someone can call you is a moral relativist. I can almost understand how much vitriol Plato pours upon the Sophists, because it's about the same attitude folks like Augie Turak hold towards the current crop of atheistic secular humanists. Anyone who is a moral relativist is considered to either have no soul or no brain, because either would quickly disqualify one from truly believing that values were merely arbitrary inventions.
Well, at least that's the prevailing opinion. I arrive at similar convictions myself, but I'm not nearly so quick to jump to that conclusion. For one thing, I think most intelligent people do recognize that values are rarely if ever something that can be applied absolutely. Classical rhetoric and common sense both tell us that the answer to "Is X good?" is almost always "It depends." (In fact, the most correct answer to almost every question is "It depends." I discovered, first in job interviews and later as a consultant, that the best way to impress people with your intelligence is to ask lots of questions.) Even our legal system, while trying to apply broad principles of fairness and justice, still recognizes that circumstances are important. What's appropriate punishment for an adult is not necessarily appropriate for a minor. In real life, the way we apply our values is indeed quite relative, and nobody seems to feel like we have compromised those values just for recognizing they are context-dependent. Most people are just as repulsed by extreme moral absolutism ("yer all goin' ta Hell 'cause ya 'taint accepted Jesus") as by moral relativism.
The problem, then, is not that morals can be relative, but that people abuse the notion of relativity. A nuanced notion of good is one thing; but many moral relativists go one step further and conclude that if morals are relative, then they might as well not exist at all and we can do what we please. This is a logical fallacy. Just because something is relative doesn't mean that it is arbitrary, nor does it mean that it doesn't really exist. It means exactly what it says -- what's right depends on the context. But that doesn't mean there isn't a real right. Most people instinctively back away from believing in a complete moral relativism because they are not ready to surrender the notion of the right, the good, and the true. In a university senior seminar on multiculturalism we might say that values are socially constructed and we might even intellectually believe it, but in our guts we still think that killing babies is wrong, really really wrong, and not just because I think so but because it's wrong, God dammit,Â for you or for anyone else.Â We can't help but suspect that moral relativists are really just people lacking in virtue and looking for a cover story.
The goal of philosophic enquiry is pretty much as Plato defined it: we want to understand what virtue really is. The fact that its manifestations are relative should not dissuade us from grappling with the a priori intuition of goodness itself. It's precisely because we intuit that there is goodness and truth that we find it so frustrating when we fail to define it.
Friday, November 23. 2007
I started listening to a series of recorded lectures on the ancient Greek philosophers. Though I have been trafficking in philosophy for fifteen years, I always felt self-conscious about the holes in my education, and the Greeks were always biggest elephant I had ignored. Absolutely everyone glosses Socrates and Plato, and I was aware of Nietzsche's debt to Heraclitus, so I figured I had to come back to studying the originals at some point.
In some ways I'm glad I waited so long, because I'm not sure I would have appreciated the full import of their thinking in my twenties. The series starts with Thales, the most ancient of the pre-Socratics, who breaks with the usual tradition of using mythology to explain the world and instead proposes a logos, a rational explanation for the nature of things, based on his own empirical observations. Never mind that his rational explanation (that the archae, the origin of all being, is water) is a little loopy; the breakthrough was that for the first time, someone believed that the world could be understood rationally. The birth of Western civilization starts here, with the notion that men could really know something, just by looking around and using their noggins.
At this point, I imagine most nineteen-year-olds in Philosophy 101 rolling their eyes and staring blankly at their pencils. "Whatever." Rationally understanding the universe is so basic to our world-view that we have a hard time believing there was ever a time we didn't know that. It's kind of like imagining a time before people invented the wheel, or money, or writing. It seems like incredibly old news.
And yet . . . I find that the basic attitude that informed mythic thinking is still alive in well, even in our modern culture. While everyone supposedly believes in rational causes for physical phenomena, most people think that bigger questions of meaning, purpose, and the origins of the universe are still best left to the realm of the mythic. When I teach about mystical traditions, it usually comes as a shock and a revelation to people that they personally might directly experience the nature of God and the world.
Nor is the instinct to explain things rationally, even physicalÂ and technological things,Â nearly as deep as we might suppose. As a software consultant, I am amazed at how often people accept and embrace mythology to explain their computer problems.Â A program crashes, and I asked, "Why did that happen?" The users will often say, "It just does that sometimes. I think it doesn't like Mondays." Now, I can forgive the end users for saying that, because technology is often indistinguishable from magic. But sometimes I even go back to the programmer who built the program in the first place, and ask him, "Why did it crash?" and evenÂ he will say, "It just does that sometimes." He isn't just being lazy -- sometimes he really believes that some things just happen, for no particular reason, and who is he to question why? And I feel like Thales when I make the pronouncement: "Everything happens for a reason. And when we finally understand the reason, and fix it, these crashes won't happen again." Â Every bug I fix is another triumph for Greek philosophy. And everyone, from the programmer up to the VP of Sales, seems slightly amazed to hear that the world can be understood.
Thursday, November 22. 2007
Standing in line at the K & W Cafeteria, I noticed something odd about the man in front of me. At first it was something so subtle that it was almost subliminal -- his lips didn't look right. They seemed kind of tight, and the wrong texture. Hmmm, I thought . . . maybe some kind of racial trait I'm not familiar with? But I noticed around his eyes the same kind of stretched-thin look. And then I saw the too-pointed point of his nose, and then that his ears were completely fused to the side of his head. Tick, tick, tick went my brain, until finally the answer popped out: burn victim. At that point my manners finally kicked in and I stopped staring, until I had to look again in case he might think I was trying too hard not to look at him. He seemed kind of quiet, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable, just another guy standing in line. "Well, at least he passes as normal to the casual glance, I suppose he has that going for him," I thought, but then he got up to the trays, and he finally pulled his hands out of his pockets and I could see he had no fingers. Carefully he propped one stub of a thumb against the edge of a tray, and after five tries he managed to pick up a tray flip it onto the counter.
The typical train of thought such encounters engender is, "Thank God I'm not that guy." Yeah, well, there's also the swirl of guilt for being the presence of the afflicted, and a brief backlash of thinking the guy deserves not to be inflicted with my unasked pity, and the fervent prayer of thankfulness for my own happy state. But still, in the end it settles back down to the basic initial reaction: "Thank God I'm not that guy."
For some reason, though, my mind took a different track with this encounter. I started thinking about all the things this man has to be thankful for. To have been so severely afflicted, it must surely be a miracle that he's even alive. He can walk unaided, something even my mother-in-law can't do for very long. He can, even without his fingers, manage to function in a generally self-sufficient fashion. He has a real face, in spite of the fact that he probably spent a couple months or years without one. He is brave enough to be out in public, in spite of awkward glances of assholes like me deconstructing his situation. He can speak, and his voice is clear, if not very loud. He has money in his wallet, and although the K & W is hardly the Ritz, he still has an enormous piece of baked chicken to look forward to.
I don't know the significance of any of this, other than perhaps an ever-increasing recognition of diminishment in life. As Eckhart Tolle has pointed out, although the ego wants to believe it's on an ever-upward path of bigger and better and more, the fact is we will likely spend just as much time (if not more) on the downhill slope of our lives. We will, inevitably, preside of the diminishment of our health, our fortunes, our relationships, our very minds. It no longer shocks me to see "tragedies" of loss . . . it just looks like more of life to me, a path we inevitably tread.
Wednesday, November 21. 2007
We started the final pass through retirement communities today. My mother-in-law saw the latest MRIs of her back, and decided that her days of completely independent living are numbered. She started touring retirement homes in earnest about a year ago, and now we're down to the last few contenders.
Walking through lobbies and hallways and cafeterias, I kept having flashbacks of the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. NCSSM is in the old Watts Hospital building, and had the same ultrawide hospital hallways and doorways, redecorated as much as possible to look more homey than institutional. The small apartments reminded me of dorm rooms . . . well, ok, that's an exaggeration. They reminded me of a stylized, perfect Hollywood version of a dorm room. The notion of living in a space so cozy, home-like without the superfluous baggage of a home, was appealing. Which, I suppose, is exactly the point.
The stereotype of old people is that they are focused on the past: surrounded by photographs and books and music of bygone eras, they are supposed to ramble on about "the old days" and tell war stories. But I saw something quite different in the retirement homes. Yes, many of these people had foresaken their youthful pre-occupation with the future. They were not, as they say, buying any more green bananas. But these people who had sold their homes and consolidated their lives into convenient spaces were not hoarding their pasts, so much as turning their attention to the present. They seemed friendlier, like the smile and hello of the moment was all that mattered. The whole place was geared to enjoying of small moments: a conversation in the hallway, the splash of water in the pond, a good lunch. This may be the gift of age, that you can finally start filling the present moment with your attention.
Tuesday, November 20. 2007
I took my two sons to the State Fair. The State Fair is a mode of cultural entertainment that is ideally suited to the three-to-six-year-old set. Farm animals are still an exotic wonder to a three year old. Hot dogs are still a rare delicacy. Roller coasters are still enormous. Cheap plastic prizes are still glittering treasure in their eyes. I always enjoy taking them, but only because of their earnest enthusiasm for the whole scene. Sometimes I see couples about my age wondering around by themselves at the Fair, and I have to assume they are killing time while their kids hang out at the midway, because unless you have a burning interest in cows or blacksmithing or an altogether unhealthy lust for funnel-cakes, there's not much here for the grown-up.
I've also come to see it as the testing ground for my kids' upbringing. Our kids don't watch TV or listen to the radio, and they hang out with kids of similar Waldorf-inspired backgrounds, so it's not often that they are turned loose in an uncontrolled blitz of cultural noise. The State Fair is a determinedly family-friendly event, so you'd think I would have nothing to worry about. Still, it's the product of a culture that I've gone at lengths to avoid: a land of sweets, a land of buying, and above all a land filled with NOISE. I watch the kids with a sort of horrified fascination to see what they make of it all.
While I dread them contracting an inconvenient meme ("Daddy, what's that? Spider-Man? Ooh, I want one of those. Tell me about Spider-Man!") I also have some pleasant surprises. As we walked down a packed aisle, killing time while we waited for the pig races, the kids descended upon one of the toy stands. I say "toy," but it's really the pre-school equivalent of a southern knife-and-gun show. Bins overflowed with plastic assault rifles, pistols, hunting knifes, machetes, axes, and every brand of fashionable ninja-wear. I held my breath while they peruse the display, and looked around for a distraction to get them away as quickly as possible. Suddenly, Malcolm came back to me clutching the one and only one item from the whole display that was not designed to maim and kill: a horn. A little plastic bugle. He blew on it, and it makes the most unpleasant, wheezy rasp, like a broken kazoo that inhaled some helium. He laughed, and Aidan laughed, and then they were both holding horns and blowing them at each other as loud as they could and laughing hysterically. We bought the horns. I knew their mother will kill me for bringing home dreaded "toys-that-make-noise," but I couldn't overcome the relief I felt, knowing that the idea of music was more compelling to them than the idea ofÂ violence.
My own reactions are a puzzle to me. Why was that scene so important to me? I remember being their age, and getting a little bejeweled rapier in a plastic sheath at the Great Adventure theme park, and thinking it was best toy in the whole freakin' world. I didn't grow up to be a mass murder . . . I doubt it even made me the least bit mean. So why should I care now? I guess I've drunk the Waldorf kool-aid. I already see in them a sensitivity to the physical world that vastly exceeds my own. Aidan already hears tunes more accurately than I do . . . builds more elaborate Lincoln log structures than I ever undertook at any age . . . conceives of diorama displays of wood and beeswax of such ingenuity and beauty that I almost want to cry. Boys will be boys, and my boys will wrestle and fight and war as much as any other . . . but I sense that other capacities are emerging and growing strong in them, strictly because they have not been buried in an avalanche of violent fantasies.
Throughout the outing my cell phone has been ringing. I played hooky from work to go to the Fair, and customers are rioting because they can't get a hold of me. I needed to find the one thing that absolutely doesn't exist at the Fair, which is a place quiet enough to talk on the phone. As if in answer to my prayers, Aidan suddenly dashes over a strip of lawn to the only greenery in the entire place: a row of enormous trees that ring the arena. The trees sprawl outward in a loose ring, branches perfect for climbing. Standing near the trunk, you are surrounded by wood and green, and aside from the occasional "Ding!" from the midway games and the muddy roar of music, it's almost possible to forget you're at the Fair. And the boys do forget. They climbed the trees, and climbed, and climbed. I made calls on the cell phone . . . twenty minutes, thirty minutes . . . and the boys don't care. They had found the most fun ride in the whole place. Even after I had finished my calls, they didn't want to leave the trees . . . and neither did I.
Occasionally I have moments when I realize, in the moment, that something is happening that I will remember for the rest of my life. It doesn't happen often, and not when you'd expect. But standing in the middle of a wide tree, my boys in mid-air and completely at ease, while an ocean of noise swirled around our tiny island of quiet, I realized I would never forget it.
Monday, November 19. 2007
Several events in the last few weeks have made me think about our relationship to stuff -- material objects in our lives:
The flip-side of "how little we need" is "oh my God, how much we have!" I am not inclined to rail against our consumerist ways, or feel guilty for how much more we have than others . . . but it would be truly coarse if we were not at least grateful, and took notice of our wealth. Which seems like a good sentiment for the week of Thanksgiving.
Monday, November 12. 2007
Last night the Emerson Waldorf School celebrated Martinmas with a Lantern Walk.Â Waldorf schoolsÂ have a number of festivalsÂ they observes as a community every year, which are borrowed from European Christian traditions but celebrated in an inclusive and gentle spirit. This year's Martinmas was especially beautiful. Shannon Wiley, my son's first grade teacher, told the story of St. Martin to the school community gathered in the outdoor theater in the woods as dusk was settling. As legend has it, Martin was a Roman soldier who cut his cloak in two to clothe a freezing beggar as he entered the city of Amiens with his troop. Later, at the end of his enforced conscription, he refused to fight, and offered to face the entire enemy army without armor or weapons, rather than continue as a soldier.
After the story, all the children have their hand-made paper lanterns lit, and the whole community walked through the forest along a trail marked out with luminaries. The bobbing, winding procession of small lightsÂ was startlingly affecting, for such a simple thing. It felt like a pilgrimage, or perhaps like Tolkein's elves marching off into the west. The moment whispered: We are going somewhere together. Halfway through the walk, we came upon (totally by surprise) a tableau of actors silently posed in a scene from Saint Martin's life. There was Martin, covering the beggar as others march past, unnoticing . . . and a little further down the trail, Martin bound and kneeling, while his commander pointed emperiously at the sword and shield Martin has abandoned. Lit by torches, so still I almost took them for statues, they looked for all the world like a Renaissance painting, impossibly dramatic for all their stillness. Finally the procession arrived in a field, spiralling around a tree lit by paper lamps, and finally coming to rest in a glowing throng. Some songs are sung, some cookies passed around and shared. So very little happens, which is strangely beautiful.Â We are here, together. When we finally drift off back through the woods, the quietness hung upon me for hours.
The Waldorf tradition understands ritual better than most churches, and certain more than me. Most religions, if they engage in ritual, are determined to explicate the theology that is being enacted. They don't want it to be an empty ritual -- if you drink from the cup, you should be thinking about God, gosh darn it. If they tell a story, it is merely to concretize a moral. And yet, they bristle at the notion that the rituals might not be literally true -- then it would be just a story, and not a religious truth. But Waldorf pedagogy intuits that there is no such thing as just a story. Stories are powerful in their own right, and their ability to mold our thinking is more significant than any historical fact. Nor is intellect required to clothe ritual in its meaning; these physical acts have their own meaning which they tell to us. If anything, the meaning is more powerful for the sake of not being consciously fussed over. So when I'm standing in a dark, cold field, and someone breaks a cookie and hands half to me, it feels as sacred as any Eucharist.
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