Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Mythmaking, Timeless Rituals, and Modern Life

Two glowing golden rings symbolizing lasting marriage

Ancient people used myths to explain the world. It was a way of trying to make sense of their surrounding and of all the ensuing existential questions and dilemmas. A myth is not simply a “lie” - that would be diminishing or belittling it - but rather a symbolic representation of truth.

In fact, people used to believe in myths because they represented a higher truth for them in a similar way we may believe in God and the afterlife. For them, nature was animated and alive. They did not have the scientific conception of living subject separated from material objects. To them nature was an active and willful agent and, in fact, more powerful than anybody else.

This led to some curious beliefs. For example, if you hurt yourself when cutting a plant, it doesn't simply mean that you were inattentive - rather it meant that the plant was actually attacking you or that you were upsetting the god of plants who took revenge on you. This perception then led them to “fear” nature the same way we may fear another person's violent reaction.

Such a view, often called “primitive” in a somewhat derogatory sense, exists most clearly during childhood. Children do not have the scientific mind and do not treat objects as lifeless things; it is a world view they acquire over the years. This magical perception of your toys coming to life or of doors willfully attacking you shows a fertile and often poetic imagination that we often lose completely in adulthood.

However, I cannot help but wonder how sometimes my computer plays tricks on me or deliberately annoys me! Or when your car decides to break down exactly on the day when you finally have the long-awaited date or when you have an important final exam. Or when your television (in some case maybe even your clothes) suddenly malfunctions during an important event that is broadcast live.

However, another way the ancient pre-classical people differed from us was in their conception of time. They believed that time was eternally recurring, circular, repetitive and endless. Every day the world was created anew. The sun god defeated the night, good won over evil, and all were granted another day.

There were cycles when it would get hot and then cold with periods of droughts and rain, some of which could supposedly only be influenced by praying, performing rituals, or making sacrifices to the gods. We can say that there was no innate sense of progress or progression; since everything mostly depended on the gods, human influence on events was very minimal and of little importance.

This seems odd with our modern perception of linear time and singular events. By giving dates to events, we single them out and make them unique and hence they cannot be repeated. Even the same or similar event would not be and could never be exactly identical. We do sometimes fall prey to the illusion that we have been caught up in an endless routine of work or school, but as it turns out, never do we find ourselves in exactly the same circumstances, no matter how little the differences may be. Today, for example, Joe at work wore a blue instead of a white shirt.

Another oddity would be that when you have no perception of time, you will have no birthdays. People did not count (or count “down”) each and every moment of their lives by adding a new number to their lives. If we are not aware of how old we are, we might actually be more optimistic and feel “younger.” We do not have to lie about our age anymore or complain about our midlife crisis. Life would be or seem in a way eternal, as time flows but we do not perceive or hear its ticking on the wall.

There are, however, certain other myths and rituals that we take dead earnestly and that have its origin from “primitive” times. Of course, we can say that the aforementioned birthday is simply the celebration of creation. We look back to the moment where it all started and celebrate it all over again. The same can be applied to any other festive events that have mythical roots such as Thanksgiving, where we give thanks for the harvest that was provided us this year, so that the gods or God see our gratitude and bless us with the same the following year.

But more importantly, most of us take elaborate planning in creating and having an unforgettable wedding (A bridezilla would be a mythical creature indeed!). A wedding with all its rites and rituals is, in fact, a symbolic and mythical event. We exchange rings as a sign of symbolic and eternal union. We bind our souls through the affirmation that we will love each other at all times and until death do us apart. Time stops there and then, and we make vows that tie and connect us to all the vows ever taken in the history of humankind.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Brad Pitt, the Sword of Damocles - and Spinoza

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie looking happy and smiling at table
Happy couple?

Fame, money (lots of it) and sensual pleasure. These are three ingredients that are probably on most people's striving for happiness and personal fulfillment list. Who does not dream of being famous one day? Who would not like to bathe in money? Who would not like to have sensual pleasure?

If all that were true, that those three items can produce true happiness, then Brad Pitt is truly blessed. He's famous like almost nobody else out there. And he's not only a heartthrob, but a really good actor. Money he does not lack, nor will he by a long shot. And sensual pleasure? Angelina Jolie – the dream and envy of most mortal men.

But according to Spinoza, these are part of a continuing cycle and a cause for exactly the opposite reaction - unhappiness. Fame, he claims, would seem like a good thing, but it limits you. This is somebody speaking before the age of paparazzi and stardom. Stars often complain about lack of privacy, which seems a natural by-product or bitter aftertaste of fame.

Yet it also can limit and draw boundaries around who you are and how you define yourself. You may become dependent on your fan base. They do have power over you. Should they decide that you are yesterday's news, your shooting star will be down within no time. So that might be the stress felt by Britney, for example, who was forced by fame to adopt or rather project a life of virginal innocence. The fans have created you and if you do not conform to their image of you, they will drop you into the anonymous mass of faces. Worse than not being famous is becoming an ordinary citizen again.

In the case of money, people often heedlessly strive for it and do not set themselves any limits. The problem with money is the more you have, the more you crave. These are all those rich greedy folks who do not want to spend money and live in a modest manner in order to save up more and more; they merely derive joy by watching their bank accounts rise relentlessly. Or a tragic case would be the German billionaire, one of the hundred richest men in the world who, after some disastrous financial setbacks, actually committed suicide. There seems to be no point where you will feel you have reached a state of ultimate happiness when it comes to money.

What about sensual pleasure? Spinoza says that it is a motivating force ... until it becomes gratified. Once you have satisfied your sensual desire and have conquered your goddess, it is followed by a state of melancholy. You might realize that it was not as special as you thought it would be or it might be that once you scratched the itch, it becomes more difficult to find satisfaction. Hence we have a lot of “bed-hopping” people who desperately seek the initial lost spark of attraction. Everything given a certain amount of time wears itself out, becomes bland and dull no matter what the wrapping may look like.

Everything except the eternal and immaterial. That is where pantheistic Spinoza sees the root of all lasting happiness. If your counterpart is eternity and perfection itself, how can one be disappointed? All the fame and riches will not be able to produce happiness, all the sensual pleasure of the world will not fulfill you, even Brad Pitt or “Benjamin Button” is not immune to aging and mortality. The sword of Damocles is hovering over each person's head whether they acknowledge it or not.

Spinoza likens our general fate to the terminally ill patient looking desperately for a remedy. All of us, whether rich or poor, famous or unknown await the same fate. Whether you sleep in a king-size bed or on the hardwood floor, death equalizes us, and we are all one in its heedless democracy. Yet to the unassuming modest Dutch philosopher complete spiritual contemplation and immersion was a path towards everlasting peace and happiness.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Death of the Renaissance Man

Renaissance Man Leonardo Da Vinci in his older years

A Renaissance man or a polymath is somebody who is very knowledgeable and has various capacities – a multi-talented person. For example, Leonardo Da Vinci was not just a painter, but he was also a mathematician, engineer, inventor, architect, botanist, musician and a writer, to just name a few.

Nowadays, however, there are very few people who can be considered Renaissance men or women. The problem with the modern world is that it has become and, in fact, insists on and demands specialization. No matter what you do or where you work, it is important to “limit” yourself and become a specialist or expert in one particular field or area.

This applies equally to the McDonald's employee and the university professor. There should be ideally one branch of knowledge that you will know really well, even to the point of exhaustion. A PhD is said to give you the ability to know everything there is about a specific given subject. The fast food chain employee will be trained to become most efficient in a particular area of the restaurant.

Why do we have to specialize then? If we look back in history there has not been the wealth of knowledge there is now. That is essentially a good thing. Philosophy in its earlier stages used to be comprehensive and embraced various disciplines in one. For example, biology and medicine, astrology, psychology and sociology, political science and history, all of these academic disciplines evolved out of philosophy. In other words, a philosopher back then was indeed a prototype of a Renaissance Man.

Today, in order to become “special” one needs to be a specialist. If you are the best source on the subject, all the doors will open for you. People will come to ask you for information. Yes, your knowledge will be not very comprehensive, but there is one subject you are an expert in.

In terms of jobs in the fast food chain, it is a matter of economics. By dividing work in different areas and with distinct responsibilities, the employer saves time, his company becomes more efficient, and as a result, there is more profit to be made. So if your boss realizes that you have a natural talent and make damn good milkshakes, you will be the milkshake expert. People will find out and will want to try your famous drink.

In other areas, it becomes, due to the wealth of knowledge, impossible to know everything. There are some very few exceptions though. I think one can consider Noam Chomsky as one of the traditional Renaissance Men who have managed to break through successfully in various disciplines.

Although I have enormous respect for experts in any field (I'll drink your milkshake anytime), I find it limiting, unfulfilling and - well … boring. It is one of my major obstacles towards getting a PhD degree (incidentally called a “Doctor of Philosophy” no matter what the subject). I have no idea in what to specialize as various fields are of equal interest to me. By accepting one and rejecting another, I would be doing injustice to my overall curiosity for knowledge.

Once a friend of mine told me that it is better to speak one language perfectly than to know several well. It was a kind of unusual comment, especially since I often pride myself on knowing five languages, but I think she made a valid point. She was in tune with the necessity of perfecting one area over the drive for general knowledge in various areas. However, I still think I prefer the multi-talented and widely knowledgeable Renaissance man over the brilliant, but essentially limited, expert.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

God's Omnipotence and the Rules of the Game Existence

The Lion Aslan from Narnia Series by C. S. Lewis

The Creator of the Narnia Series C. S. Lewis has been an outspoken Christian and has written books on Christian thought and philosophy. It does not seem far-fetched when one considers the abundant religious symbolism of his fictional work. Yet in one of his essays called “Divine Omnipotence” he tackles some important traditional objections against Christianity in an interesting fashion.

In fact, he brings up a seemingly valid point about God's omnipotence. He states that omnipotence does not mean that God would be able to commit nonsensical acts; that is, we cannot expect God Himself to break the intrinsic laws of logic or the natural laws of physics.

In other words, God has the power to do all that is intrinsically possible, but not the intrinsically impossible. Among the latter would be to carry out mutually exclusive events, for example, to give and withhold free will at the same time, which would be a meaningless combination of words and would not have any validity whatsoever.

So what is C. S. Lewis trying to do here? He is trying to solve the age-old riddle of the problem of evil. If God is omnipotent and all-good, why does evil then exist or is even allowed to exist? Why does a being that is all-powerful not eradicate all evil and suffering in the world?

As we can see, C. S. Lewis is taking a different route than just insisting on the existence of original sin or free will. The question I often wonder about is whether free will is actually a good thing since Adam was forbidden to eat from the fruit of knowledge. Does that imply that God would actually prefer ignorance or blind obedience? Is free will along with death a form of punishment or a test for us to prove our morality? It is evident that without free will the theory of morality would go down the drain and be completely meaningless.

In this case, C. S. Lewis makes an interesting statement about free will by showing how objects by themselves could be used in different ways. Let's take a baseball bat, for example. It can be used for good purposes, such as for a baseball game; yet at the same time it can turn into a weapon during an argument, when one bashes in windows or seriously hurts somebody. The same object has been used in different ways, and it is not a matter of God's indifference but of free human will. There seems to be a latitude or ambivalence to be able to use things for better or worse causes, which finally depends on the individual's decision.

We might ask why does God not interfere by stopping the act of the baseball bat violence? Does He simply cross his arms and watch? Or even worse, does He perhaps not care or even enjoy the act of violence?

Lewis claims that if God were to break the laws of nature, He would be actually contradicting Himself. That He can or is able to do so is a sign of His miraculous attributes, yet even the Almighty is or chooses to be generally bound by the rules of His self-styled and created game of existence. An example, Lewis gives, would be a chess-game. If your opponent suddenly made up or constantly revised her rules, then playing would become impossible.

Rules and laws are indeed necessary. If we dropped an object, and it would alternatively either fall, go to the left or up to the skies, then we would be constantly left baffled. It is the laws or rules of the game that give us certain predictability and a sense of some assurance that on a normal day pianos won't suddenly fall on our head. As such, reality becomes somewhat more manageable.

Does Lewis have a point then? It seems an interesting way to try to find loopholes in a dead-end street, the relatively persistent problem of evil argument. His arguments may be flawed and fall short merely because God defined as a rational concept or being is full of contradictions.

By adamantly insisting on logic, Lewis is actually limiting himself and reality itself. Contradictions are a part of life and have recently even found their way into science. For example, Quantum Physics has in some cases given us a worldview in which 2 + 2 is not always 4 or when mutually exclusive statements are each simultaneously valid. If quantum science can do it, why can't God?

Also a vital question still remains (apart from the problem of evil, of course): What does unlimited power really mean? What are the limits of absolute power? I think, from a human vantage point, those questions by itself are hard to fathom.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Different Types of Humor and their Implicit Ideology

Fireworks show that includes a smiley face
I have always liked the saying “The pen is mightier than the sword” for three reasons mostly: one, I love the act of writing and consider literature and the arts extremely relevant and beneficial for our lives; two, I am generally against violence and subscribe to Gandhi's mandate of non-violence; and three, I think it goes hand in hand with another saying knowledge is power and puts free speech on a democratic pedestal.

But there is something that actually surpasses the pen. Something that people in power have historically feared the most, and it is the terror of many religious conservatives no matter what your denomination. I am referring to the invincible power of humor.

Now humor can come in forms of writing, but it is much more elastic than that. It can happen anywhere really. In a café or restaurant, in somebody's house, in the form of a comment or gesture, on a television program or movie, or on a theater stage. Humor is much vaster and hence much more difficult to control.

Dictatorships generally do not like humor. Yes, they do lack any sense of humor, or humanity, for that matter. Could you see yourself going out for a beer with Hitler or Stalin and having a good hearty laugh with them? Rather have constant chills and beads of perspiration since any inadvertently “wrong” comment can be your last.

Because they have to take themselves seriously – which they mostly do anyhow – what they fear most are satires. When people are making fun of the leader, flaws or peculiarities are revealed and come into the open and the power structure suddenly changes.

The one who laughs is usually the one in charge. When someone laughs at you, you most likely feel belittled. It might be an act of foolishness that you hoped would go unperceived. Or it might be a comment on flaws within your personality or being, the way you dress or speak or look. Yet in all of those cases, you are on the losing side, whether the laughing person is in the right or not.

Laughter in this sense is dangerous for religious authorities as well, something that Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose demonstrated in a chilling manner. The abbot believed that laughter equals disrespect towards the holy and, in particular, towards God. As a result, it had to be suppressed, even if that implied the use of force because only solemnity and seriousness advocate respect of authority. For example, what happens if a soldier laughs at his superior? I would not recommend it for the sake of the poor soldier.

Historically, religion has been no laughing matter; there have been Crusades, the Holy Inquisition, witch hunts, charges of blasphemy, Indexes of prohibited books. It is only in more liberal times like ours where a movie like Life of Brian is even remotely possible without hovering death sentences over film-makers and spectators.

But humor is multi-faceted, and there are many sides to it. The comment one is laughing with and not at somebody implies that not all humor is intended to be evil. Sarcasm and irony generally imply an air of superiority, of taste, of education, of upbringing. But an inoffensive kind of humor can spring up from good-natured chats between jolly people who simply enjoy life. That would be the Buddha or the Dalai Lama whose laugh is rather life-affirming and contains no hidden judgment or prejudice.

What I am interested here are the differences in philosophical and ideological grounds when it comes to humor. As to the intentions and worldview of humor, we can establish two distinct forms, one of them being pessimistic and a sign of resignation, whereas the second is imbued with faith and confidence in the world, such as the latter example of the Dalai Lama.

The first type is a kind of neurotic laughter. It is a person being either overburdened or estranged by reality. Woody Allen would be a perfect fit here. He is constantly struggling with reality and human relations and is self-consciously and nervously looking to adapt to the world around him.

But the world with its social or romantic dimensions is hard to figure out and causes distress. Communication among people falls apart and misunderstandings rule. Underneath the fool's cap of most of Allen's movies, there is a serious undertone of resignation and hopelessness of man confronted with an uncaring, ambiguous universe.

The second type is a more positive and life-affirming humor. Here people laugh because they have faith in powers that surpass the ordinary world. It is a confidence that is not shattered despite the cruelty and horrors of life. It is Buddha seeing through the world of Maya and understanding the underlying reasons for suffering. It is Job who never lost hope despite the horrible cruelties he had to experience. It is laughing into the face of misfortune, not as a nervous gesture, but fully and heartily because deep inside we know that everything is all right.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Moses: The Lawgiver and the Law

Rembrandt painting of Moses breaking the tablets

What comes to mind when we think of Moses? Apart from Charlton Heston, an abandoned child in a basket, the Ten Plagues, the parting of the sea, his most important legacy has been undoubtedly the apparition of the fundamentally influential Ten Commandments.

It is astonishing how important Law with a Capital L has been – and how necessary. Moses was gone just for a short while, and when he came back he could not believe his eyes – the people he had liberated were involved in an orgy, drinking and adoring a giant golden calf. These guys absolutely need some guidance, he must have thought. And in his fury he actually broke the tablet of commandments given to him by God Himself.

The Ten Commandments have always struck me as authoritarian. Rules one has to obey and if not, the wrath of the jealous God, so feared and so abundant during the Old Testament, would come down on each and every one up to the third and fourth generation. They resemble a father who tells his child how to behave, but gives no underlying reason for it (which is in modern terms not the best kind of parenthood ... yet Jesus would later have a different approach on the whole issue.)

Let me give examples. Thou shalt not kill. Nothing more true than that, at least from our modern perspective. We have gone through centuries and centuries of ethical and moral analysis and development, and the individual life, including human rights, has come to be valued.

Back in those times the perspective was essentially different, and not until the Renaissance and afterwards did the concept of individuality actually exist. The reason people did not kill each other was not because they valued the other's existential rights; it was because they were aware of the consequences.

If I kill so-and-so, this clan, tribe, family will get upset and will in turn demand either my life or seek to do harm to somebody from my group to get even. It is the old adage of “eye for an eye.” Yet as Mahatma Gandhi states wonderfully that with this method the whole world could go blind, killing each other would eventually lead to the destruction of humankind.

Hobbes claimed that humans are essentially brutes who look for their own advantage and that if left without government, or laws, then looting, murder, and a state of constant chaos would exist. But with laws and punitive consequences for one's actions, the citizens will be forced to obey the law, which was intended for the common good.

Now in the case of the Commandments, they may not have offered reasons why killing someone or coveting the neighbor's wife and possessions are bad simply because people in those times may not have had the faculties to understand the underlying reasons. What worked best for them there and then were strict rules that ought to be followed. No questions asked. End of discussion.

And if one did not obey, one would draw the wrath of God and perhaps even spend a whole eternity of suffering in burning hell. Now that's a high price to pay for not obeying.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Nothing can come out of nothing - or can it?

Nasa picture of space

This is a phrase that has appeared since Greek times, by thinkers like Parmenides; however, its most famous use has been by Shakespeare in King Lear. In Shakespeare's case, we are dealing less with cosmological facts than a useful human part of wisdom; if you don't put effort into obtaining something, you cannot expect it to actually happen.

Yet in the previous instance, ex nihilo nihil fit, it is implied that things cannot be created from nothing and that, as a matter of fact, they cannot simply disappear. Some of it is actually proven by modern science. Energy cannot be destroyed or cannot simply disappear into thin air; it is rather transformed. Although it is a far cry from claiming immortality or proving the existence of an immortal soul, it is still a means of solace that something will indeed persevere (it remains to be seen what that something is, while the scientific notion of energy seems rather vague and general).

What about going back to the beginning of things? How was the universe created? Or has it always existed from time immemorial? In fact, to my knowledge, the question of whether the universe is finite or infinite still remains open.

If it is finite, then we are dealing with a “closed” system. And since the universe is constantly expanding then, according to the second law of thermodynamics, it is getting more and more compressed. At some point in the far future - we're talking many many years from now - the universe would eventually collapse into itself and become a great ball of fire.

If the universe is infinite, then it would be an “open” system. That would still mean that the universe would reach its end, but in a different manner. Now as it expands in open unlimited space, the universe would cool down and in a far future we will be turned into ice crystals.

So far the picture is bleak, and I am sorry to start with such observations on the dawn of a new, perhaps promising year. It would appear we come from nothing and disappear into nothing.

But there seems to be more. As the universe is and has always been expanding, that means that it can be reduced to a single point when it all started, a beginning of some sort. That is when scientists become hazy. They claim it all goes back to the “Big Bang,” which apparently was a silent explosion.

I am not denying the validity of this belief, nor would I would be in the position to criticize it anyhow. But I would like to return to where I started, to the beginning of my post, namely that nothing comes from nothing. Sure, it can have been a total fluke, and we have collectively drawn nature's winning lottery ticket, and, as a result, we have come into existence.

But what if there was a starting point and actually something or somebody may have created something out of nothing? Would that prove Parmenides right? Can there be a so-called Creator or a creating substance after all?

That would mean, in true "King Lear" fashion, we need to put on our thinking caps and through effort find satisfying answers to these eternal riddles and tell dear Cordelia in the meantime: Nothing will come of nothing: speak again.