Thursday, January 28. 2010
Kenny pointed out to me another example of people feeling a yearning for a simpler existence: "What Could You Live Without?" a New York Times op-ed about a family who, at their daughter's urging, downgraded to a smaller home and donated the proceeds to charity. The family experienced a double benefit: not only did they get the warm-and-fuzzies for making an enormous gift to the needy, they also discovered that a smaller house gave them more time together.
The benefits of cutting back are getting renewed attention these days. The recession certainly removed a lot of excess buying power, forcing people to look for happiness that couldn't be bought. The environmentalists, as we had discussed before, consider overconsumption to be a moral issue, since consumption of energy and other resources is what ultimately drives pollution, deforestation, and (is widely believed) global climate change. Kim John Payne, a therapist who recently spoke at our school, published a book called Simplicity Parenting that urged parents to jettison substantial amounts of both material possessions and scheduled activities as a means of making their kids happier and more well-adjusted.
I'm glad that people are rediscovering these truths. But I put the emphasis on re-disovering, since these are hardly new. While some forms of evangelical Christianity have occasionally gotten sidetracked down the doctrine of wealth, the mainstream Christian message has always advised people to "lay up their treasure in heaven" – moral action, not material accumulation, is the secret to happiness. It used to be that thrift – only buying what you needed – was a common-sense virtue, not a startling epiphany.
The Salwens, the family that sold their house, did so because their daughter observed, ""Dad, if that man [in the Mercedes next to us] had a less nice car, that man there [begging for food on the other side of us] could have a meal." While I admire the moral bravery of such a statement, I shudder at its economic naiveté. It's such a small step, intellectually, from wanting to help those in need, to believing that poverty can be "fixed" through a simple redistribution of wealth. It reinforces the massively mistaken notion that economics is a zero-sum game – that someone having more is somehow taking away from those who have less. My ethical heroes are not the sackcloth-and-ashes folks that make "sacrifices," but rather the mega-philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, who generate enormous value and wealth by doing what they love, and who then use that wealth for something better than mere conspicuous consumption. You never know – that guy in the Mercedes might have already fed more hungry people than you could even dream of helping with your modest means.
Thursday, January 14. 2010
A reminder to all "Abandon Text!" readers: if you're not reading the comments, you're missing half the fun. (Maybe even two-thirds of the fun, since Kenny can usually say twice as much as I do in half the space.)
Imagine that you see a rock, teetering on the edge of a cliff. There is no one below the cliff, who might be hit. There is, in fact, no one around but you. It's not a particularly big rock, not part of any structure, etc. So you can go put the rock back on the cliff in a more stable place, or you can throw it off the side of the cliff, or you can just leave the whole thing alone. Here is my question: do you have any moral or ethical reason to do any of the above?
Well, sure you do, if you imagine that the rock is trying to launch itself off the cliff. That's what it looks like, when you look at it that way: like Tantalus, it keeps straining for the edge, but can't quite get there. Life is probably a lot better down at the bottom of the cliff, it reasons. So you really ought to help it out and give it a toss.
But of course, all that is completely fanciful. Really, the rock doesn't care one way or the other. You get no ethical high marks, or demerits either, no matter what you do.
And here's the point of this unnecessarily-lengthy analogy. In a purely material world, everything and everyone is just like that rock. A small child is "trying" to get some food? Not really, that's just a fanciful way of putting it. What's really happening is a complex series of mechanical, electrical, and chemical reactions that all lead the child to move its legs, hold out its arms, and act for all the world as if it really matters if it gets the food. Those physical events are the whole story: anything else we add to them is self-indulgent anthropomorphism. Maybe the child gets the food and lives, maybe it doesn't and dies, and as Dr. Manhattan says, a dead body contains roughly the same number of molecules as a living one, so what's the diff?
If nothing matters, then nothing matters.
Ok, this is good, because we've teased out something that wasn't in the original description of Felder's Wager. Let's break out the argument into pieces:
This argument has some problems.
Wednesday, January 13. 2010
Good philosophers, like good scientists, should share their raw data, warts and all. (Yes, that's a dig at Phil Jones.) In the interests of full disclosure, what would change about my life, were I suddenly to become a materialist?
Pursuing my own pleasures would suddenly take a higher priority. If physical death is the end of life, then one's calculations for deferral of gratification could change significantly. No more "laying up treasure in heaven," doing good deeds with the thought that one will be rewarded in the afterlife. I wouldn't even wait for retirement, much less death; I'd make darn sure that I had rewarding experiences along the way, since tomorrow might be the end. As Kenny put it, more chess and movies, and less meditation. But again, I don't think that necessarily changes my lifestyle much – I deliberately developed a life in which my work and my play were pretty close to the same thing.
I think what we might term ordinary morality -- a basic respect for other human beings, generosity towards your immediate friends and neighbors, an aversion to crime -- is totally intact. No one needs a God in order to naturally do these things. I would still be trustworthy, give blood every couple of months, and help out a stray dog now and then.
What takes a real hit is the superrogatory goodness -- goodness above and beyond the call of duty, goodness that involves sacrificing my own self-interest. I would not "give 'till it hurts," as the Red Cross asks. I would be a decent person, but most likely I would not be a saint. It would still be possible for me to give generously to causes in which I or my family had a vested self-interest (like volunteer work at the school) or in which I had a personal intellectual interest (like technology work at the school or the SKS) or which provided other compensations like interesting friends (school and SKS again). But I wouldn't consistently put those causes ahead of my family's interests, or if they got to be unpleasant or felt unrewarding I would probably drop them.
Or, to put it another way: I would stop doing good things that I thought I ought to do, and only do those good things that I felt like doing.
The loss of the prospect of sainthood is significant. I'm currently reading David McCollough's history 1776, and I am acutely aware of how much I owe to people who made extraordinary sacrifices to establish the society I live in. I'm not sure if our way of life could have come to be, or be maintained, without people who live and die for something outside their narrow personal interests.
Oddly, and ironically, all good deeds (those I do for others, and those others do for me) would be imbued with a greater significance than if I was counting on a spiritual reality. If a Christian does you an unexpected good turn, it's nice, but you know they are just investing in their immortality 401k plan -- it's just a rarified form of self-interest. But when an atheist does you an unexpected good turn, it means a heck of a lot more. That person just gave you time and energy they will never get back again, for no other reason than they really wanted to. What a gift. What a pure act of self-expression. I am reminded of Angel, Joss Whedon's vampire-with-a-soul who discovers that no amount of good deeds can win him ultimate redemption, and who still does good anyway, because, in his words, "What else are we gonna do?" When he faces despair and has an epiphany that leads him back to life, he sums it up thus: "If nothing you do matters, then all that matters is what you do -- right now." Somehow it makes more sense to me when he says it, instead of Nietzsche or Sartre.
Tuesday, January 12. 2010
Here is one argument against Felder's Wager. (I have others.)
Felder's Wager depends in part on the assumption that meaning and purpose cannot be found in a purely material world. So let's run a thought experiment to test that assumption.
Assume for a moment that you came to the firm, unshakeable conclusion that materialism is true: there is nothing in the universe but matter and energy, all mental phenomena are emergent properties of matter and energy, and when you die, "the mind doth perish with the house that hoards it." (Let's not worry about how you come to that conclusion; that's not relevant to the argument.)
So, now that you're a materialist: how does that change your life? Specifically, what do you do differently? How does your notion of a good, meaningful, worthwhile life change?
I had initially expected (like Kenny) that losing spiritual reality would change everything. If life is just a random swirl of order passing through an ocean of chaos, and the universe has no purpose or direction or grand design, then of course life is meaningless. Logically, rationally, that is the inevitable conclusion.
Yet, when I run this experiment, for my own self and my own life, I find that things don't change nearly as much as I expected. In a totally material world, my desires for my own life are pretty much the same: I want to do work I enjoy and find interesting, enjoy the company of my peers and my family, be a respected and valued member of a community, and enjoy a moderate level of physical comfort and security. My notion of goodness doesn't change much, either, nor my desire to be a good person: I still want to be kind, generous, thoughtful person whose life has a positive effect on his fellow human beings. And I still recoil at the notion of being a bad person: murder, theft, selfishness, thoughtfulness are still just as bad. A shallow existence (watching reruns of Friends and eating lots of potato chips) still looks shallow and unsatisfying to me. A deep life, full of contemplation, conversation, and challenging tasks still looks appealing.
True, things are not exactly the same. I can't deny that my sense of confidence would be shaken. Without some spiritual plan or order, some eternal framework to hold existence, I would feel forced out into the open, exposed to the horrors of tragedy with no refuge. I would feel the overwhelming bitterness of being robbed of an enormous fortune. And yet . . . goodness is still good, and evil still evil. I would still "love that which is worthy of love." My rational calculations about the nature of the cosmos do not seem to put a dent in my convictions here on the ground.
So . . . if my notion of goodness doesn't change much, and my idea of a good life doesn't change much, and my actions don't change that much, once I become a materialist, in what sense can I say that meaning is dependent on a non-material, spiritual reality? If my instinctive, core sense of what is good and right is unchanged, even when all hope of spirituality is removed, then I can't say that there is no meaning without spirituality. The meaning might be different, but it's still there.
[Even if you're skeptical of the argument, go ahead and run the thought experiment for your own life. What would you change about your life, in a totally material world? Be as specific as possible, and as honest as possible. Ask yourself: would you still love your children? Would you still admire people who were generous and kind? Would you still have the same job you have now? Would you vote the same way in the next election? Would you try to be a different kind of person?]
One could explain these results away, and many an apologist does. "There, you see? Your moral convictions persist, in spite of your rational beliefs, so there must be a God somewhere, putting those moral ideas in your head!" Or, "You say you don't believe in a non-material reality, but you've just buried it beneath some abstractions. I bet if we dig deep enough we'll find out you still believe in something transcendent." Or perhaps the Ernest Becker, Denial of Death answer: "You still act like there is still meaning in the universe because you are in abject denial. Your mind simply refuses to acknowledge meaninglessness, because if it did, it would totally crush you. So you pretend there is meaning, even when there isn't."
Perhaps. Perhaps I'm just not that imaginative, and I would become a hopeless, helpless, despairing, despicable wreck without the hope of spiritual reality. But somehow I doubt it. I know lots of good people -- people more virtuous than I, by any measure -- whose virtue and meaning is not impeded by their materialism.
Felder's Wager attempts to use reason to overturn meaning, but in the end the contradictions can flip the other way: the persistence of meaning and morality invalidate reason. You can never argue away our sense of meaning, because it was never rational to begin with.
Monday, January 11. 2010
I find the scientific world empty of the things I want most, which are purpose and certainty. In terms of purpose, we always say things like "It's better to be good to people than to hurt them," or even "It's better to know the truth than to live with superstition," but if science is the only basis for truth, then those statements are utterly meaningless: they can never be scientifically proven, right? In terms of certainty, science bases everything on logic (which we can't prove works) and the evidence of our senses (which in fact we know lie to us all the time), so nothing in science is ever certain beyond "that's the best we have so far."
So where does all that leave me? Certainly, I don't meditate because I have any certainty that it will lead to ultimate truth of any kind, although I am quite convinced that it has led me to a better understanding of who I am than I had before I started. But I meditate because, if I can't find real truth that way, then it just seems hopeless that I can find it in any way whatsoever.
So, as Kenny sees it, a purely physical universe, knowable only conditionally and devoid of values, is inherently meaningless. Therefore, if you want to have a meaningful life, your best bet is to turn your attention toward the Mind. Mind, for all its baffling nature, is at least directly apprehensible, and therefore offers a certain existential certainty. Of all the things you know, the only thing you know for sure is that you exist, and that you experience. Many spiritual teachers hold out the hope that if one pursues the mind deeply enough, one might eventually arrive at complete certainty about one's own nature and the nature of the universe – that is, enlightenment. Mind also seems to be the only place where a moral reality can be found, since science can only tell us what is, but not what ought to be. Like Pascal's Wager, this isn't a proof that spirituality inquiry is true. Rather, it says spirituality is the last refuge for meaning and certainty to exist, if it exists at all.
I like Felder's Wager, primarily because it's pretty close to where I've place my own existential bets. Like Kenny, what I want most out of life is moral certainty – clarity that I am living my life the best possible way, and doing the right thing. And like Kenny, I don't see any way to achieve that end without arriving at some certainty about my nature and my place in the universe.
Unfortunately, like Pascal's original version, Felder's Wager is dependent on certain premises that are open to attack. More on that tomorrow.
Friday, January 8. 2010
I turn 40 today. In our youth-worshipping culture, today is the day I'm supposed to bemoan the loss of physical vitality and attractiveness. Truth is, I kind of like being this age. Consider the benefits:
Thursday, January 7. 2010
As a side-note to our discussion on consciousness, I should point out that while Kenny and I and lots of others have strong intuitions about awareness as the seat of identity, there are some others who consistently fail to have the same intuition. I'm thinking especially of the computationalists who dream of uploading the entire contents of one's brain into a computer or robot (or, in the case of Dollhouse, another human brain), as a strategy for immortality.
I always find these schemes to be enormously frustrating, because they smack of such a wrong-headed identification – even if the computationalists are right about the mind being reducible to patterns of information. Let's say you sit down in the mad scientist's chair with the hat full of wires, and he reproduces all of your brain's thoughts, feelings, memories, and other mental capacities and puts them in a robot sitting in the chair next to you. Well, it's more like a cyborg, really – the brain is replaced by a near-indestructible chip, but the rest of the body is real flesh, created with cloning technology to be an exact replica of your body. Let's even skip over the enormous questions of qualia and consciousness, and assume that he can even reproduce those in his cyborg brain.
The question is: what will your experience be when the process is done?
I think that some people imagine that they will wake up in their new immortal robot body, still themselves but now ready for lots more life and love and happiness. Drinks are on me!
But . . . I don't think that's what happens. What happens is that you wake up in the same old body, just like before. Only now, there is a perfect copy of you sitting in the chair next to you. He's just like you – same face, same hair, same smug smile. You feel uncomfortable self-conscious watching him, just like you do when you watch a videotape of yourself. You never realized your hair looked that way from the back. The mad scientist is shaking his hand, telling him that the procedure was a complete success, and wishing him the best of luck. You watch your doppelganger walk out of the lab, ready to take over your life, go to your home, make love to your wife. And then the mad scientist turns to you, pulling a .38 caliber revolver from his pocket, saying, "We won't be needing this old body any more . . ." And you scream, "Wait! No! I'm still here! This is still me! That's not me!"
A perfect copy of yourself is now walking the street, enjoying himself, dreaming new dreams, making plans for his immortal life. So . . . are you immortal? Maybe your thoughts and feelings and ideas and hopes and dreams are alive and kicking . . . but what good is all that, if you don't get to experience them? Someone else is experiencing them – and if someone else is experiencing them, what does it matter that that person is just like you? You might feel proud to have given birth to an immortal, and happy that someone will carry out your lifelong mission of perfecting fusion reactors . . . but are you immortal?
Yes, I know, I'm ripping off dozens of sci-fi stories with this scenario. That's kind of the point. I'm not the only one who has thought this through, and concluded that copying yourself is not the same as being immortal. And yet people keep bringing it up . . . some of them really, really smart people. I used to think that people who thought that way were just not subtle enough to understand the argument . . . but now I'm starting to wonder if some people are just wired differently, that they really don't have the experience of observing experience the same way I do. Maybe there really are philosophical zombies, who don't care at all about consciousness when planning for their eternal persistence.
By the way, if I ever start a garage band, I'm going to call it the Philosophical Zombies. You heard it here first.
Wednesday, January 6. 2010
Continuing our discussion on Kenny's conversation on consciousness . . .
As I described yesterday, when we empirically observe the nature of our own thoughts and consciousness through meditation or introspection, we observe that:
That's the evidence of our introspection. The question is: how do we interpret that evidence? What does it mean? There are at least two approaches to that evidence:
Currently, I find both interpretations to be almost equally compelling.
The spiritual interpretation of consciousness was the most compelling case I had ever found for spirituality – much more compelling than traditional religion could muster. It generally satisfies my intuition. I can't deny that consciousness is – it is the one thing I am most sure about – so I am perpetually annoyed by people like Dennett or Hofstadter who refer to it as an "illusion." (If it is an illusion, to whom is it an illusion? Can something be an illusion to itself? This is what Ken Wilber would call an "operative dysfunction": if it's right, it's wrong.)
On the other hand, the materialists have some good points I can't shake off. As I wrote previously, I think the Churchlands were right: just because we can't imagine something does mean it's not true. Steven Pinker made the same point in How the Mind Works, arguing that not only might we not understand consciousness now, we might never understand consciousness, for the simple reason that our species never evolved the capacity to do so.
Most significantly, there are the troubling correlations between the mind and the brain. So far, the only minds we've ever found appear to be housed in brains. (Some mystics would claim that ALL things are aware, which is an interesting idea but impossible to verify.) Electrical wave patterns in the brain are strongly correlated with states of consciousness in the mind. If you damage the brain, the nature of consciousness also appears to be affected. (I cannot for the life of me understand why so many spiritual people are all gaga over Jill Bolte Taylor, when her experience only lends credence to the notion that supposedly "spiritual" states are the product of the brain, and a damaged one at that.) Even if you accept the spiritual interpretation of the phenomena of consciousness, you are left with difficult questions: if awareness is "a thing apart", total separate from thoughts and feelings, why does awareness only occur in brains? And what makes us so sure that awareness will continue when the brain is gone? It's at this point that I start to feel like the materialists are winning the argument: the mind is the product of the brain, and awareness, though mysterious, is part of the same physical package. It's only the fact that the neuroscientists still don't have a satisfactory explanation for qualia and consciousness that keeps me on the fence.
Tuesday, January 5. 2010
Ok, I'm going to start running down my own arguments and positions related to Kenny's conversation with Keli Y on the nature of consciousness and how it relates to meaning, purpose, and how we choose to live. Please forgive me if this is all repetitive of things you've read from me before.
Starting from the top of the list: who do I think I really am? Am I a body, or thoughts or emotions, or the consciousness observing the body, thoughts, and emotions?
On this question, I'm right in there with Kenny – I am the conscious awareness of thoughts, emotions and perceptions. Like Kenny, I find this to be empirically self-evident: if I sit in quiet meditation and observe my thought processes, it inevitably becomes clear that "I" do not control my thoughts. The thoughts happen, and "I" observe them happening. Whatever that "I" sense is, it is NOT in the thoughts themselves.
The best thought experiments to hone in on the nature of identity are to imagine immortality. What would it take for "you" to live forever? Does your physical body need to survive, forever unchanging? Does the pattern of your thoughts and feelings, your personality, have to survive? Or is it something else entirely – for lack of a better word, your soul?
Most people will readily agree that their body is not who they really are. Were that that case, we couldn't even imagine stories like "Freaky Friday", in which a mother and daughter trade bodies for a day. We observe people losing parts of their body (an arm, a leg) and replacing them with prosthetics, and we don't consider them to be different people. A body seems like something we have, not something we are. So we can readily believe we might be immortal without keeping our bodies.
What about our thoughts? Here it's a lot harder to see the distinction between what I am and what I have. In English we use both forms for describing thoughts and emotions: "I am angry", versus "I have a lot of anger", or "I lust after her" versus "I keep having lustful thoughts." It seems like we can go either way on that one, as Kenny described, through a process of identification, in which our sense of self temporarily attaches to particular thoughts and feelings. When you observe carefully, though, you will ultimately conclude thoughts are not essential to the self. We can easily imagine dying, finding ourselves in Heaven, and realizing that we don't feel angry, hateful, or lustful any more. Our thoughts can change (they do all the time anyway) but we are still the same person. In fact, such change is almost necessary for us to feel like we are alive: we call it "growth."
What about memories? Do we need to remember our lives in order to continue being, essentially, "us"? This gets even harder to pin down, since almost everybody thinks the sum of their experiences are what makes them them. And yet, even that doesn't seem to be central to our notion of ourselves, for an obvious reason: we forget. We forget lots of stuff. In fact, we forget most of what happens to us. We even construct memories of thing that never actually happened. And (getting back to immortality) we can imagine getting to Heaven, and enjoying ourselves so much there that eventually we forget everything that came before – our jobs, our worries, our fears, even our own names. And yet it would still be us that were living on in Heaven.
What's left, after you take away body, thoughts, feelings, and memories? Only consciousness – that which observes everything and is nothing in itself. That's who we know ourselves to be.
And yet . . . in spite of all that . . . the argument is still not won. More on that tomorrow.
Monday, January 4. 2010
Kenny posted his latest essay -- actually, an ongoing dialog on the nature of consciousness -- with the apology: "Somewhat intellectual and abstract, even by my standards--sorry!"
No need to apologize. Of all the topics on which one can get intellectual and abstract, this is the one worth doing it for. The questions that Kenny discusses with Keli Y are exactly the questions I have been struggling with for most of the last year. I have a dozen or more unfinished essays, all taking different stabs at the same questions:
Anyone familiar with the SKS, which defined most of my spiritual life for the last twenty (!) years, would recognize that these are all the perennial koans of a genuine spiritual path, at least as Augie Turak and many other teachers define it. This should all be old hat. So why should I be so fired up about them now?
So, in a nutshell: I started out agreeing almost entirely with Kenny's position on all these questions . . . And over the last year or so I have been dragged kicking and screaming to a position closer to Keli Y's. It might take me a while to explain why.
(Page 1 of 17, totaling 162 entries) » next page
Syndicate This Blog