Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Voice of Reason Versus Mystic Music: A Review of “Answers for Aristotle”

Book Cover of Massimo Pigliucci

Reason is like a well-respected friendly neighbor: I will have him over for a chat, enjoy his company and love to have coffee with him, but I sure do not want him to stay over permanently. I appreciate and enjoy the craftiness of rationality, this useful and progressive methodology the origins of which can be traced to the cradle of Western thought and civilization: the ancient Greeks.

Once upon a time there was a man called Socrates who roamed the streets and confused everyone with a harmless seeming but malicious glee. He did not even care about putting down anything in writing and preferred to lay down his life for truth than be perceived as a life-long exiled liar. Certainly, the more earnest Plato was seduced by his mentor's philosophizing and engraved and enshrined those thoughts in permanent writing.

Both of these philosophers have given philosophy its general method: the unwavering and rigorous scrutiny of logic. What I like best from Socrates, however, is not his rationality or his famous elenchus but the playfulness with which he approaches life and with it philosophy. When it comes to Plato, on the other hand, I prefer his wild flights of fancy more than his logical arguments.

Strangely enough, Aristotle leaves me cold despite certain funny (by modern standards of course) theories about rain drops aiming to return to the center of the earth. Although I have deep respect for him, as a somewhat precursor of scientific knowledge and investigation, he lacks the nutty wittiness of his ancestral originators of Western thought. If I had to pick my favorite fact about Aristotle I would say it would be his function as the tutor of Alexander the Great, and what a great job he did indeed!

So that might explain my ambivalent approach to the book Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life by Massimo Pigliucci. The ambivalence comes only from my own hesitation to fully and wholeheartedly embrace reason and rationality the way Pigliucci does; it is certainly not a criticism of the book, which is indeed well-written, well researched and of considerable value.

There are facts in this book that will not only make you smile but teach you about how to approach life. And Pigliucci touches upon pretty much everything one has to deal with in everyday life, be it the issue of losing weight, of finding lasting friendships and partners or even deeper philosophical questions of what makes us human and what roles culture and religion play in our lives.

His book sheds light on important facets and questions of your existence and can help and guide you in many ways. For example, you will see the link between willpower and sugar levels in your blood, the relationship between threat perception and conservative ideology (!) and how and why gossip exists analyzed through an evolutionary lens. There are numerous delightful and tasty bits that will not only be fodder for interesting and erudite conversation at home or work but can change your whole outlook on life.

All of these ideas are accentuated by the combo approach of sci-phi, the delicious double down of science and philosophy. It comes from a person who loves and has clearly thought about both disciplines and wants to combine them in a balanced manner. In fact, both virtue and rationality are like muscles; they need constant use or workout to be in good shape or working order, and they will lead to a happier and more satisfying life expressed in Aristotle's quest for eudaimonia (more about this in a following post as it deserves its own spotlight).

And yes, I fully agree with Pigliucci that there is not enough rationality in the human soul. In fact, science is the most reliable path to understanding physical phenomena and towards advancing technology, especially in fields like medicine. We ought to follow the voice of reason more than we do; we would spare ourselves a lot of pain and suffering to each other, ourselves and our planet if we did so more often. And three times jubilant yeses to all of that.

But there is a vacant spot there that reason cannot fill; an ache that it cannot heal; a hunger that cannot be satisfied with the remnants of rationality. Pigliucci walks a tightrope on various issues. He is at times the voice of humility itself – science does not know for sure and this is why new theories will have to come along and adjust and refine our findings.

At other times, however, he bashes anything and lashes out at everything that is even remotely spiritual and related to religion, which, if I am not incorrect in my interpretation, he delegates to a simple world of fantasy and make-believe, a card-house world of a misfiring brain. (Something along the lines of if one person has an imaginary friend, he is considered insane; if millions around the world do it, it is called religion.)

But I want to make clear that I am not objecting to his method nor his findings. I embrace evolution; I acknowledge significant advances in neurobiology and psychology; yet at the same time I cannot shed my belief in astrology, the supernatural and God (not necessarily in that particular order). All of this is irreverently brushed off as “pseudoscience” but I guess I could take at least some comfort in the following fact: better pseudo than no science at all.

Let me clarify my point (if there is one at all). We need to use reason in our daily life to make sense of the world. Or rather, we use reason because it is the reasonable thing to do and, more often than not, it is indeed the appropriate tool. Yet sometimes we get trapped in our reasoning and simply rationalize that our own understanding of logic and reason adequately represents the world "out" there, that we can actually understand and make sense of the world around us.

In reality, however, this particular world of ours and our existence in it tend to elude sense and logic and often border on nonsense and the absurd, i.e. our existence on this planet, the meaning and purpose of our lives and quantum mechanics. Rationality may be the best method, but it has its own caveats and pitfalls.

Reason tends to conveniently gloss over or ignore other ways of making sense of an ambiguous world and believes that its perspective is the best and most grounded way of looking at the world due to its binary lens of “P” versus “not P.” It may be a good and strong approach, but that still does not make it the truly “right” one.

We tend to evaluate arguments on the grounds of logic. There is either a right or a wrong way. And the right way is the one that has the strongest reasons for its support and the least amount of contradictions. This is most helpful when it comes to decision-making. You do not want to be swayed by irrationality and should focus on the strongest logical building blocks that lead you to the sagest final outcome possible.

Pigliucci shows us that contrary to our common belief the “gut instinct” is not the best method to adopt when it comes to important decisions. Gut feelings are evolutionary by-products that help us make decisions under pressure and time constraints, but at other times, when we are given time to reflect and sleep over it, the rational decision is the best one to adopt. This is not only limited to matters of business, but applies also to love and marriage.

Had I followed this advice I would have been a completely different person now: I would not have met my wife and not had my son. The decision that led to my meeting her was purely irrational and nothing but undiluted and crystal-clear gut feeling or intuition.

I accepted a job in a foreign country that paid less than the minimum wage in Canada at which time I was under pressure of paying back my enormous student loan debts. From a fiscal and rational point of view, this was not only a disastrous decision but it was rather bordering on financial ruin and suicide, let alone madness. In reality, it was the best “mistake” I have ever made.

This leads me to another fact about reason: It always wants to be right, and it is terrified of being wrong. Emotions are neither; they simply are. It is our rationality again that labels them and considers certain feelings as good and productive, while others such as anger and envy are seen as not only counterproductive but even dangerous (though they obviously do have their own benefits too). Yet regardless of being positive or negative, they are still feelings nonetheless and, more often than not, they remain beyond the scrutiny and reach of the voice of reason.

To return to our book of discussion here: I accept its premises, but discard its conclusion. Not because they are flawed. If I had fully embraced rationality (or if I had a little more sense in me!), it would be a dream to write a book like this one that contains wisdom and humor and that touches on a wide range of human life and experience (similar to this blog, only better).

But it is because his approach is missing something, a je-ne-sais-quoi, that mysterious element that reason cannot ever get a clear glimpse of since it is closed to the gates of logic and that science cannot address and touch.

Science with the aid of philosophy sure comes close, but sorry, I still prefer to hold onto my legal and constitutional right of holding onto "wrong" opinions, my personal right to be be seen as wrong by those who listen predominantly to the heady left-sided voice of reason instead of humming and dancing to the right-sided tune of the mystic and divine heart.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Santa Claus: A Fairy Tale of Hopes and Wishes or a Creepy Story?

Gingerbread Version of Santa on a Rollercoaster with Children

The North American tradition of Santa Claus has not been part of my own upbringing, but I want it to be part of my son's experience. There are both benefits and disadvantages to that. The funny thing is that since it is not something I have grown up with in an organic way, I have to study it along the way, just like studying a foreign language or doing research. And I need to get my stories straight since my son will be in contact with other kids of his age and the topic of Santa Claus is a popular one especially when the festivities are within reach.

Also, and although a wonderful thing but making things somewhat more difficult for me, my son is rather bright for his age and sees through (my) logical inconsistencies. So my wife and I have to get our stories straight. In our version, we have updated and modernized Santa by giving him access to email as opposed to the traditional letter (who writes letters anymore?).

My son is rather humble, which is a good thing, and had only asked for three toys this year since he is worried that Santa's bag has limited space and would not be able to carry sufficient toys for all the other kids out there. I did not dispute that belief, for selfish reasons, of course.

Then the night before Christmas Day, we strategically put up milk and cookie. When my son fell asleep, my wife and I started our secret covert operation of wrapping the gifts in a rush, quietly and under limited lighting with the Mission Impossible theme song looping in my head.

And it seems that we made it through another year without a mishap. My son is not suspecting anything too fishy, and my story is airtight albeit perhaps not completely correct on all accounts. That remains to be seen.

Some oppose the celebration of Christmas. I have heard some criticism of this tradition that one as a parent gets no credit whatsoever and that all of that is transferred to an unknown jolly fat guy in a red and white suit. So be it. Giving presents is not about getting credit for it, but seeing the joy on a child's face is what really counts.

In fact, this whole ordeal and secrecy entices the imagination of both parent and child. Of course, I do feel guilty at times, for lying to my son. I guess Kant would not be good at adhering to Christmas, at least North American style. His son would ask that there is a rumor going around that Santa, as we know him, may be a fabrication by a soft drink company and father Kant, unable to lie under any circumstances, would nod and say yes, this is categorically true, my son.

It is a white lie nonetheless because it brings more joy. It is transmitting something of a tradition, something often associated with warm feelings of childhood. And hopefully, our children will remember these festive events with glee and warmth. This is what my wife has lacked too in her own childhood; her mother is often referred to as the "Grinch" as she would not only not celebrate this event, but dismiss it as humbug and make believe for the ignorant.

The other criticism is that the whole festivities are an expression and extension of materialistic beliefs. We are creating future consumers by falling into the trap of the big companies. That is true but why rob children of their innocence and their thirst for toys at such an early stage; they can always rebel against materialism and embrace Marxist ideals when they are teenagers.

But still there are some creepy details about Santa. The first one is best exemplified in the song 'Zat you Santa Claus. The singer in this one strikes me as paranoid. Who is that at the door or on the top of the chimney? Is it Santa? Or is it a burglar? Or perhaps it is a burglar dressed up as Santa?

Is it not a creepy idea to have a stranger walk around in your house at night eating your cookie and drinking your milk? This unseen presence that does not steal but leaves behind wrapped gifts instead? Since we do not have a chimney I had to modernize this part of the story and have him enter through the balcony. But the matter is, at least in my son's fertile imagination, if Santa can creep in this way, what about other threats like monsters and dangerous individuals?

Speaking of which, I do find it disconcerting that during this post I have mistyped Santa's name on various occasions by misplacing the letter "n" at the end, and suddenly we are left with somebody completely different altogether, somebody you definitely do not want to enter your premises under any conditions. Is that simply an unfortunate coincidence or a conspiracy? Who knows. In the meantime, merry Christmas everybody! 

Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Enemy Within: How and Why Guns Do Not Make Us Safe

Various guns crossed out with red color

Generally, the idea that guns make us safe or safer is misnomers to start with. Guns do not offer protection, but rather endanger us, whereas crime and violence will continue to increase as long as guns are easily accessible. The United States should take advantage of this historical moment to pass laws that will limit individual access to dangerous weapons to prevent the evident spike in terrifying, terrible, and senseless crimes.

This type of restriction does not affect individual liberty, the same way a lack of access to heroin does not limit one's freedom. Since guns do not add but only subtract from our safety, they should be under strict control to ensure and provide us and our children with a safe environment.

If guns are the solution, then a country with lax gun control should have relatively low crime and homicide rates. The idea would be that armed people would be able to protect and fend for themselves. "Shoot before you are shot" would be the philosophy. I don't know, call me paranoid or cowardly, but I still prefer to have only police officers armed instead of a free-for-all gun-toting society. A surplus of weapons does not make us safer.

Along the same vein, can anybody really say that nuclear weapons are making the world safer? As it was the case during the nuclear arms race of the Cold War, the aim was to produce not only the largest amount of nuclear missiles, but the most destructive and devastating ones. This reminds me of the scene of Crocodile Dundee where Paul Hogan mocks his opponent about the size of his knife pulling out a much larger and much more dangerous one. This is not just childish behavior or a cocktail of Freudian complexes; it is downright dangerous.

The same would apply to guns. Having "regular" guns will not be enough for one's safety. One needs assault weapons, bazookas, even bombs to scare off others. The world does not become safer by having more potentially devastating weapons; it becomes more terrifying. Any such weapons in the wrong hands can inflict much more damage than at any other time in history.

So the idea of adding more weapons and armed citizens into the mix to ensure more safety from bad guys is not the solution; in fact, it makes matters worse. As a matter of fact, having guns on and with you (concealed or not) is making your life much less secure.

And I am not referring to bad guys or criminals here. I am simply stating that having guns endangers all our lives. Let us look at three different everyday situations where guns pose an additional threat to us, at work and school, on the road and at home.

Do you really want access to guns at work and school? Imagine the quite common situation of being pissed off at a boss and co-worker. We will usually storm off in anger or, at worst, say spiteful words and get into a fistfight (none of which I recommend if you would like to continue working where you do).

But many a time we actually want to slam the boss's door or punch our co-worker in the face. Once in a while, depending on our own threshold and control (or rather lack thereof), we may actually do so. But having a gun would make matters much worse. We might actually use it in a momentary lapse of reason and regret it for the rest of our lives.

Similarly at school, students may take out their frustration on their teachers. The latter will always be scared of those teenagers who lack control of their actions; it is not their fault really since their developing brains make them more vulnerable to risky behavior. And we sure do not want to feel the brunt of it. (This is a teacher speaking who has seen red faces of anger on students' faces because of a deserved bad grade. A gun in those hands would surely endanger our lives and put our profession at risk.)

Guns are, of course, not only a risk at work, but also on the roads. The phenomenon of road rage affects even the most reasonable types of people. I have seen friends with nice demeanor and perpetual smiles on their faces turn into unrecognizable monsters when somebody cuts them off. I have seen people in suits get out their cars and take it outside in a fist fight. The damage done there is not as irreversible as a shoot-down would be. And again, remember most of us are not immune to the symptoms of road rage.

Finally, our home front is not safer either. Guns can become accessible to our loved ones; our children may use them accidentally or on purpose since they can be within reach. It is hard enough to hide Christmas presents from them, so do not think that your kids are not capable of finding them no matter how good you think you have hidden them.

Yet again, even we are not perfect. When we get into a dispute with our neighbors over loud music or disrespectful behavior, it is just endangering ourselves to take the next step, namely of threatening the other guy. We like to show our superiority in this conflict situation by wielding a gun.

Sure, we can defend our property from burglars. But here is a scary thought. Since guns are easily accessible, we know that they already have one, so we need to stack up. A better world would be one where neither has access to it. In fact, most burglars around the world are most likely not armed. Think of it this way: When burglars need weapons to protect themselves from the owners, we end up in another vicious and unnecessary circle.

Furthermore, guns increase suicide rates. The reason for this is that guns are simply much more potent and effective. When people take sleeping pills or cut open their wrists, there is a chance of recovery. It may be a desperate act for attention versus seriously wanting to kill oneself, but no matter: We can save a life by not giving them access to guns.

As we can see, guns do no make us safer, quite to the contrary. The reason is that we cannot trust ourselves. We are human. We make mistakes; we engage in dangerous activities; we act impulsively. By taking weapons out of the equation, we are making not only ourselves safer but are also adding protective layers to the environment around us.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Nagging Voice of Discontent: Replacing Criticism with Love and Understanding

A two-year-olds swirling lines and dots with fingerpaint

Fact is we are being criticized wherever we go. We do not even need to be famous or in a position of authority to feel the heat of criticism. It is something that we have been breastfed and that sticks with us for the rest of our lives – in fact, sometimes even long after we have left the earthly abode.

In order to reassure or convince ourselves that criticism is necessary and even good for us, we usually add the epithet “constructive.” I assume that criticism is usually perceived as something negative - perhaps destructive? - but sometimes it is not only appropriate and called for, but actually of benefit to us. Or so we tell ourselves.

So criticism is a little like cholesterol: There is the good and the bad variety and, more importantly, their respective ratio is what really matters; so if you are high on the “good” cholesterol you have very little to worry about. Thus, criticism of the constructive kind is really not “bad” for you, while the other types should be taken with a grain of salt.

Criticism - and the impending internalized fear coupled with external pressure thereof - may quite likely lead to success, but it can also scar people for life. Let us talk about the good sides first before we take it apart or rather before we criticize criticism itself.

If you are self-critical and perhaps also analytical, you will strive for the best you can be, the best of your abilities and perhaps even a little beyond that. For those who are driven, perfection will not even stop at the retrieval of the Holy Grail. This is good in many respects, when you are looking for a significant position, fame or fortune. By working on and perhaps coming close to eliminating your weaknesses, you will be steps closer to your ultimate life goal, whatever that may be.

So far so good. We are living in a post-Protestant environment, where we strongly embrace responsibility and self-improvement. Those who devour self-help book and read posts like these one (especially with such a New Agey and self-helpy title, sorry about that) wish to fill a need and would like to work on parts of the self that seem vacant or not up to standard. We might label ourselves as socially awkward or incompetent and look for a remedy or quick fix to this problem or situation. And we may believe that these books and articles can point the way and guide us to win friends and gain respect and social status.

In fact, we do not have to look far to find the cause for this drive and dissatisfaction. We grow up and live in a competitive environment, the free-for-all and free-fall jungle of the wild. No wonder that people need manuals to get by, whether you call it self-help, New Age or the Holy Book.

Our very own parents had to go through this ordeal, and they are, willingly or not, passing on this drive for self-correction and mastery to us from an early age on. It can be demanding at times; it can be unfair and unreasonable, and it will most likely make us feel awful about ourselves, but it seems that it is for our own good like pungent medicine we have to swallow to get better.

In this sense, if you are feeling an inferiority complex and think that everyone is better off than you are, more attractive and more intelligent and much wealthier than you could ever be, please do not despair. Instead use your weakness as your very own weapon. Strive for success to overcome all those inferior feelings and turn them into gold.

But, of course, there are also other things to consider in this respect since everything good and bad comes with a price tag attached to it in this materialistic world of ours. All of this has started in the so important and impressionable, not to say vulnerable age of childhood.

It is my opinion that children are generally not selfish brats or little monsters (they sure can seem like unleashed creatures of our worst nightmares), but that they are mostly craving their parents' attention and, even further, parental respect and love. The problem is that we as parents are either too busy with work or too preoccupied with our own troubles to make time for them and to give them the recognition they need.

We should keep in mind that young children are trying to make sense of an overwhelming world, and they need parental support for this. At the same time, they are on the path of self-discovery, of rounding out their own limits and capabilities. It is at that tender age where criticism can scar them for life.

Let me give an example. Your son may show you a drawing of stick people and claim that one of them is you. The demanding parent would claim that they do not look a bit like them and ask the child to do it all over again. Of course, age matters in this case, you cannot expect the same quality of drawing from a five-year-old that a ten-year-old would produce. Even some adults never outgrow their stick people phase (guilty as charged).

But the point of this illustration is that there is confusion and misunderstanding at stake. The child is not interested in creating life-like portraits, but it is all rather a labor of love meant to satisfy and give pleasure to their parents. I think, believe it or not, pretty much anything young children do is meant to draw not only attention, but to also draw out the parents' love. Criticism at that point will make the child feel inadequate, and he or she will try harder next time to achieve the respect of their parents.

As such, we have already created the internal drive for success. Children will learn to work hard and not be satisfied or complacent with their achievements but to always go a step further or the proverbial extra mile. As good a recipe as that may sound, we have imbued our child with materialistic ideas for what success - and happiness - may mean and look like.

They will become like us. Never satisfied and always striving for more. You may retort that such is simply the human condition; we are meant to desire things that we do not have (yet). That is true, but we also forget to take pleasure of the moment. We are creating the self-obsessed business person who genuinely believes or convinces him or herself that going out with friends is a waste of time, while time is almost always closely tied to money.

My growing suspicion is that this person never had a full childhood to speak of, did not play for play's sake or engage in the wonderful idle activity of daydreaming. His parents may have insisted that he should not waste his time on such idle endeavors and that he better get cracking on Latin grammar, mathematics or the fundamentals of economics.

Remember what happened to Jack Nicholson in The Shining. All work and no play can have devastating consequences. So can constant criticism or nagging. We replace the voice of discontent. What used to be our parents telling us how we do things wrong is substituted by the voice of a spouse and/or boss. And rarely, if ever, do any of them give us the credit and acknowledgement for our efforts that we so desire. We have not managed to please our parents, so now we shift our focus on others, and they also seem to never appreciate our hard work.

But it is not them; it is not their voice that we hear. It is that little nagging voice within ourselves, deep embedded in our psyche or soul. This is the one that pushes us further and further afield until one day we may realize to our horror and dismay that twenty years have passed and not even once did we lie idly in the grass daydreaming and simply feeling happy and content with who we are and what we do. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Positioning in Physical and Spiritual Space and their Psychological Implications

Open landscape with the sky as background
Open Spaces by Jaroslava Hlebarska
Where you are at any given time depends on where you were a moment ago and where you currently place yourself. For the most part, this is physical placement. For example, I walk from my desk to the kitchen. At 1:05 pm I was still sitting on my chair only to get up to pour myself a cup of coffee at 1:06 pm and return to my computer screen at 1:07. (Note: Not only is my apartment rather small, but I actually forgot to put in my sugar!) So I have moved through the confines of space and find myself at a different location at slightly different time intervals.

All this is obviously based on the more pragmatic and convenient assumptions of Newtonian physics. If you mix in Einstein's relativity theory or even go further by claiming that time is not only not linear, but, in fact, non-existent, then all you have at best are three unrelated snapshots of me at my desk, at the coffee maker and at the desk again. Or I may have poured my coffee after having drunk it to the last drop! But for now let us simply stick to Newton.

Physical positioning can become more relevant and perhaps obstructive in other kinds of situations. I can be standing at the entrance of a movie theater, for instance. Due to my physical positioning, I may be blocking the incoming people. In this way, I assume that I did not mean to block others; nonetheless, my physical presence stops or impedes others from using the space around me. My body becomes then an obstacle set firmly within physical space.

We can also position ourselves strategically. For example, if I am talking to an attractive woman at a party, I might stand in a certain way that other males will have difficulty butting in and interrupting our flirtatious conversation. I do so because I do not want others to become serious contenders or competitors of the object of my affection. This is rather strategic positioning; whether it happens on a conscious or unconscious level, the aim is to protect others and/or our own interests.

In fact, we can see that physical positioning can have psychological implications. Think of Christmas dinner and the sought-after seat at the head of the table. The idea is that those who occupy that space are the leaders of the family pack. You might get the same effects with the preacher's (or sometimes even teacher's) pulpit; they end up having a psychological advantage due to their physical position. The hilarious scene of Chaplin's Great Dictator may come to mind when Hynkel is competing for a “superior” position in relation to Napaloni by always being able to look down on his fellow politician and by forcing him to look up at all times.

But we also position ourselves across spiritual space. By accepting to get married for example, one ventures into a new spiritual or psychological territory. One shifts then from being single to being married along with its future potential plan of starting a family with children.

These are decisions that often change the emotional landscapes of the projection of our own life; how we used to live and what we used to do may change due to this commitment to another lifestyle. Goodbye to binge drinking and scouting for dating partners and much more, and hello to the joys and pains of married and family life!

Positioning may also be a mix of both physical and spiritual dimensions, in terms of shifting positions. We might shift positions when it comes to our jobs. That could be the acquisition of a higher position within the company due to a promotion alongside with a host of responsibilities and a higher salary. Or we may simply choose to work at another place because it suits and satisfies certain needs better; in some cases, we even need to physically relocate.

We may also position ourselves on political and / or controversial issues, and even there we can have both shifts and ruptures with possible implications. We might question or doubt our previous stance on abortion and shift positions as a result of experiences or particular insights. Or others may persuade us with reasons or arguments to adopt another stance, for example.

Some shifts may be dramatic, such as embracing a new religion that might have a drastic adjustment or effect on lifestyle, for example joining the Mormon Church and giving up sex, drugs, rock' n' roll and coffee as a result. Or becoming a vegetarian due to one's Buddhist beliefs. In these cases again, spiritual space may strongly affect our physical space and surroundings, such as the evident Crucifix on the wall or around the neck of certain Christian believers.

We have moved through space from simple physical movements, in this case, me getting some coffee to spiritual decisions that affect our lives in particular ways. Some of these physical or spiritual shifts of positioning are in our control and are conscious choices; others are thrust upon us as unexpected surprises, for better or for worse, such as "shotgun" weddings or changing perspectives on life and death. But it is these constant tectonic shifts of our life base that keep us on our toes on the constantly changing streams of life.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

An Ode to Food: Why Every Meal should be a Last Supper

Varieties of Poutine from the restaurant La Belle Patate in Vancouver

I must confess that food is a weakness of mine. Although it is not exactly an obsession nor necessarily an addiction, it ranks high up there as one of my favorite things to do. I do not use it to boost my mood (I don't have to; it automatically does it on its own), nor do I recur to food in times of trouble (not that there is anything wrong with that though). I simply enjoy food for food's sake.

I am aware and admit that I am no gourmet or food critic nor are my taste buds particularly refined. But I know good food when I taste it. I find that gourmets are too interested in the aesthetics of food, which is in my mind not too important when we are dealing with food.

The problem is that refined food may look great, like a piece of art, but it is usually in very little portions or samples, not enough to fill me up. I prefer mouthfuls and would easily sacrifice looks for quality in this respect. Of course, food should not look or smell disgusting since that is usually a turn-off for gourmets and non-gourmets alike, but of course there can always be exceptions.

But again food is something that gives me pleasure. It is beyond the realms of duty or necessity; I do not define it as something one has to do nor as a bodily need, and it is definitely not a nuisance. I am glad that we are not plants because I do not imagine sunlight being very tasty.

Food gives me satisfaction and fills me up both physically and spiritually. It is a religious ritual minus the prayer. I do not generally pray before meals. Part of it may be a lack of custom or habit, but the other part is my suspicion that outward rituals may end up being either empty or of a hypocritical nature. Plus, they take away precious eating time.

Nonetheless, whenever I partake of meals, I am respectful of food. I avoid conversation and fully focus on the meal ahead. This is one of the reasons why dates involving restaurants have not been particularly successful with me. It may seem, at least temporarily, that the partner has been delegated to a second place in comparison. I remain without further comment on that issue.

In fact, I actually prefer to have food in known company, my family mainly, or alone since then I can indulge without any constraints, impediments or interruptions. Food gatherings are not my cup of tea, and I generally engage in conversations before and after my meals.

I may sound like a glutton here; well so be it. There is an evident drawback of my guilty pleasure, namely that it contains calories and fats. At least, all the tasty meals do. As a result, I have gained a number of kilos over the years, especially ever since I met my wife (more on this or rather her later).

The idea of going on a diet to me is more horrific than going jogging, though I have now taken steps to remedy my problem by exercising, that is swimming laps, on a (quasi) regular basis. Well, at least I have been doing so over the past weeks. And nothing better than a hearty meal or delicious junk food after a good work-out to keep the balance of life intact.

I am fortunate in three ways. First off, my wife is an exquisite cook. She may not be schooled or certified in any gastronomical way, nor was she always that good at cooking to be honest. But she has a certain knack for it, which amazes me; she manages to pick up and learn recipes in a jiffy. For example, we would have a meal in a restaurant, and she would repeat the same dish at home, only improved and better! I have even subscribed to the Food Network in HD since she often gets new ideas from those shows, and I am the one who benefits from it with its delicious outcome.

However, I want to make clear that I do not in any way delegate women to the kitchen. In fact, I like cooking myself. I have tried a few dishes that I believe I do well (enough), and it is my (at least attempt of) cooking that won over the heart of my wife. But the joys of preparing a meal and of consuming it are two different realms, and for my purposes here I am concentrating only on the second one.

Which brings me to my second fortunate reason. We live in an area that is filled with many food options. In fact, I do not have preferred ethnic food; I love Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, German, Indian, Persian and Canadian (oui oui la belle poutine, see photo) food all in equal measure. And we have our preferred restaurants that we frequent for each nationality.

I must admit that when it comes to food, I am rather "conservative." I would go to restaurants that I like at the expense of not trying new places. At the same time, I would hesitate to try new dishes but more often stick to those I know since they are guaranteed to be good and I like them already. The reason for this is I do not like disappointment, especially since I am excited and hungry for a meal and do not want it to become an underwhelming experience. It would ruin my day or perhaps the whole week!

My third reason why I feel fortunate is the most important one. I can afford food, something that is not the case with many around the world. This is a sad fact and makes me more conscious of wasting food or rather trying not to do so.

Unfortunately, however, I do waste food on occasion, and at least, to my credit, I feel guilty about it. I am most grateful that these pleasures are granted to me, and I do like to share food and break bread with others. Yet I still prefer a monkish silence over a lively conversation during meals.

And yes, although I do not engage in formal prayer, I do thank God for what has been given to me. My only caveat would be to replace the phrase of “give us our daily bread” with “our daily food.” Man (and woman!), as they say, cannot live off bread alone. And perhaps I would add the occasional wine to round it off.

Indeed, two of my favorite religious icons are not averse to the pleasures of food and drink. The Buddha although a vegetarian would not turn down any food offered, even if it included meat, which went against his general principles. While Jesus claimed that whenever people get together to partake of a meal, he will be there, and he is definitely not averse to a glass of wine. 

It is indeed some serious consolation for me that when I am enjoying my meal, the son of man (and woman!) is also (eating?) right beside me. Bon app├ętit, and of course it is the savvy French that have such an adequate expression for the enjoyment of food!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Potential Impact of Drugs on Evolution Theory and Creativity

An ape is using a bone as a weapon
2001: A Space Odyssey
One of the questions that I find most fascinating with evolutionary theory is the following assumption: At some point, there must have been a significant break or invention that influenced not only the following generation but rather all of humanity. For example, tools began to be used as weapons, a point that is visually best exemplified and underscored by the opening sequence of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Moreover, other tools were later used for farming on the fields and for painting illustrations on cave walls. Finally, what is considered the milestone of inventions must have been the realization that round wheels were best suited as means of transportation.

In most, if not all of the cases, there must have been the realization first, a flash of insight or inspiration, which may have come from a person or a group of individuals. Of course, the often tried and tested trial-and-error method produced a line of inventions more often erring on the error side until one “hit the spot” and became the most useful tool or prototype of its kind. For instance, they may have tried squared and rectangle wheels until they came up with their most practical round-shaped form.

This inspiration, this significant moment of consciousness (and even of history) might have been sheer luck, the fortuitous but necessary outcome of probability, or perhaps due not to luck at all, but through the use of mind-altering drugs.

There are other potential alternatives, such as a visit from another planet or time dimension, the appearance of a god-sent angel or spiritual entity, or the divine manifestation of a bodiless voice. These options seem rather far-fetched compared to the simple answer that it may have been an expansion of consciousness through mind-expanding substances.

I can easily imagine the hunter-gathering tribes stumbling upon a strange or rather magical type of mushroom. Since food for survival must have followed the trial-and-error system described above, it is quite likely that someone somewhere must have ingested and digested this naturally occurring psychedelic drug.

And suddenly, we have this simple and brute individual not much different from the rest in any discerning way and who comes into contact with a new kind of reality that opens his or her doors of perception, so to speak. Hence, the creative urge and need to paint some of these experiences on the cave walls, for instance.

The relationship between drugs and art or music is nothing new to us. It was in the 19th century that the Impressionists experimented with visual stimuli most likely due to the hallucinatory effects of absinthe. Consider also the intimate link between music and drugs, of how marijuana and LSD changed the face of music, particularly in the 60s. 

Without the introduction of marijuana, the Beatles would have been nothing but an early version or precursor of the “boy band” phenomenon, such as the Liverpool Backstreet Boys. The question might arise whether drugs (opium and marijuana perhaps as LSD had not existed at the time) may have also had an impact on the great classical composer as well, such as Mozart and Beethoven, but that is possible fodder for another discussion or post perhaps.

My question is this: Why could natural mind-altering drugs not have played a role in evolution theory? It may have been that it was not merely survival of the strongest but of those that were able to utilize their creative potential. Back to our opening scene of 2001, it was not the physically strongest ape that won the battle, but the most inventive one that used the bone as a bone-crushing (pun intended) weapon.

This idea may not be as outlandish as it seems at first sight. It may explain the riddle of why one of our ancestors suddenly stood up and started walking on their two feet, a single step for an ape, a leap for mankind.

What prompted these ancestors to change their regular habits, to use unprecedented methods to achieve far better outcomes and results? The mind, according to some evolutionary scientists is like a Swiss Army knife where, given a certain situation, we may use a certain kind of tool, but I believe that to be able to use the best option available we might have had a little - but rather significant - help from our psychedelic friends.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Racism, Sexism and Homosexuality: Human Rights in the United States One Step at a Time

Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street holding hands with a marriage contract

Imagine the following scenario: a gay black woman runs for office and actually wins the presidential elections in the United States. At the current state of affairs, this is pure fantasy, but the general feeling is that we are, slowly but steadily, inching towards equal rights and liberty and justice for all. In the past, and to an extent even today, these are merely nice words that have not always been supported or backed-up by facts or deeds, underscoring the wide gap between theory and practice, wishful thinking and reality.

In fact, the issue of human rights has been a veritable struggle: It seems that throughout American history, equality has gained legal and social recognition and acceptance only one issue at a time. Let us look back at the founding years. In that time, slavery was seen as a common practice, at least until the Civil War broke out. That it took a war and internal bloodshed and strife to set the foothold on the path of equality for members of the African race is indeed a black spot in American history.

To be considered equal in the eyes of the many, African Americans had to struggle through various years and decades of civil conflicts, which reached its climax in the 60s; that it took another 50 years for an African American to become a president of the nation shows that the fight against bigotry and racism still contains many hurdles. There is, however, a positive upward trend and continuous hope since Obama managed to get re-elected despite fierce and passionate opposition, by, if the sources are to be trusted, mainly white rural Americans.

As I am considering that equal rights are fought over strongly and bitterly and that it is mainly achieved one step at a time, I want to emphasize two points. One, that any fight for human rights is filled with both perils and rewards, and two, that once granted we need to ensure that it is never taken away again.

We want to move forward not retrace our steps, so we do not go back to the period of ignorance. Nothing is for free nor given out freely; it took wars and bloodshed, pain and suffering to get there. Yet evidently we still need to make much more headway for true equality among the races and ethnic minorities to occur in everyday life.

In fact, I want to give the “benefit of the doubt” to some but not all white Americans. I do not think that it is necessarily fair to point fingers and lay blame on people's attitudes in the past.

Particularly, if you were living in the Pre-Civil War years and believed that slavery was acceptable because you in your ignorance and lack of scientific knowledge were under the mistaken assumption that black people were inferior, I may in my most forgiving and benevolent mood give you not the finger but the benefit of the doubt.

I am mentioning this for two reasons. One because we may stumble upon people and writers and thinkers who were considered enlightened and good at heart but who were trapped and wrapped up in the bigotry of their times and society.

To blame that great philosophers of those times were racist and sexist is an anachronistic way of looking at culture. By the standards of the times, they would have fallen into norms of that culture and society, their epoch or zeitgeist, and it would be not entirely fair to blame them for that. To illustrate this point, we may look at Thomas Jefferson, who may have ensured and documented freedoms and liberties by declaring “all men to be born free” (which was by some interpreted as only referring to “freemen” automatically excluding slaves), but who himself owned slaves. Although Jefferson opposed the practice of slavery, he also generally objected to masters freeing their slaves.

This rather stands in some contrast to other American presidents like Washington, Adams or Lincoln who clearly and unequivocally condemned the practice of slavery both in theory and in deed (although even that claim may be debatable). But again, we may forgive Jefferson's lack of clarity or clear perspective on the issue since his idea of equality among people was revolutionary in itself and since he was caught up in the economic fabric of the slave trade, a common practice of his times.

Two, any "benefit of the doubt" that I grant people in the past I revoke (with a vengeance) from current times. In fact, I double the blame. We cannot plead ignorance in modern times. Progress in science and rational thought have presented us with factual proof that racism is not only immoral but downright harmful and wrong. Experiences of the past including Nazi ideology and the persecution of the Jews or the atrocities under the Apartheid in South Africa clearly show us that there is nor should be any kind of tolerance or leeway for racial discrimination.

If writers and thinkers have racist beliefs in modern times, they belong into the same category of ignorance and stupidity that characterizes people who claim that the Earth is flat and the center of the world or that our planet is merely 6000 years old.

Out of the civil rights gains, another group, also heavily discriminated against, managed to effect a change in our consciousness and society: women. The feminist movement ensured that women be treated with the respect they deserve and that gender equality become steps closer than ever before.

Again, we are surely not fully there, as long as certain people believe that women can be condensed and enslaved in a “binder,” but only on the day when not just pay but also social status and respect be equally spread out among both genders will true equality become a flat fact.

This fight is definitely not over yet, and we must be careful of gender stereotypes as portrayed in media, culture and our surroundings and openly object to and denounce those practices. Both men and women need to do their part to ensure gender equality in our every day lives and for the future of our children.

Finally, last but not least, we need to look at gay rights. Again, there is significant progress made on the issue, one of them being the acceptance of gay marriage in certain parts of the nation. Although many are still opposed to this idea, state authorities need to ensure that gays receive equal stature and protection under the law.

This is our most recent struggle for freedom and equality. It is an essential step and the fight of our generation to make sure that people are not discriminated against based on sexual orientation.

Once gay people are fully integrated into every aspect and fabric of society, on Wall, Main and Sesame Street, in the military and in political office, then we can feel coming closer to true equality for all.

And by ensuring that, we can continue to move forward giving more rights and protection to our minorities and accepting that regardless of race, sexual orientation or religion, we are all the same. Once these ideas are not only protected and enshrined but built and lived upon, the opening scenario of a triply discriminated person – black, female, and gay – may not be just a figment of our imagination but may become a real possibility one of these days.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Three Unusual Solutions to the Problem of Evil

Church window illuminates the aisle

The Problem of Evil is one of the most pointed attacks on theistic religions period. It is based on logic and reasoning where the traditional Christian God with all his assumed qualities and characteristics becomes a matter of doubt. How can such a God be omniscient (all-knowing), omnipotent (all-powerful) and omnibenevolent (all-good) and still allow suffering to exist in the world?

This is a seriously troubling issue and the traditional answer of free will does not cut it because it is just not satisfactory enough. At best, we may accept suffering when it comes to adults and their history of making wrong and harmful decisions, but what about children? Why are there children suffering the horrendous and heart-breaking consequences of war, starvation and pain, all of which are brought upon them by abusive and ignorant parents, societies and governments? Why are some children born with mental and physical deficiencies, being marked for a life of suffering?

I have personally struggled with this question because there seems to be no justification for this. There must be something wrong with our conception of God then. His non-existence would be the simplest explanation, but I doubt that too because, believe it or not, there is a lot of good around the world. I think that a godless world combined with the many dark characteristics attributed to humans would have been a much more evil place to live in.

In fact, we would not be existing right now and had probably destroyed ourselves ten times over. Yes, we have had world wars and other types of devastation, but somehow there is something commendable and yes, god-like, about the human spirit that I find it hard to cross God completely off our list.

That being said, there have to be some adjustments made to our concept and understanding of God. The easiest answer would be obviously that the Lord works in mysterious ways and that we just do not understand how God operates.

This is, however, both a sloppy and lazy answer because it evades the question. It may be close to the truth, but because of its self-defeating purpose, I will ignore that answer here and will offer three - as mentioned in the title - unusual or unorthodox answers to the problem of evil. I must disclaim that I do not in fact agree with any of these ideas personally, but that I am simply throwing them into the mix for the sake of argument and debate and perhaps something good may come out of it after all.

The Gnostic Answer

There is the idea that what we may conceive and refer to as our God is but a demiurge, an impostor, a weak-willed, albeit relatively powerful minor deity. It is akin to the son rebelling against his parents; thus he would be influencing control over his creation the same way a teenager may take out his frustrations on his pet.

If that is the case, then a lot of the answers will suddenly make sense. There is evil and suffering in the world because our God is not perfect himself. To accept a God limited in powers may make us shift our focus.

But it is also a serious reconsideration of his characteristics. He will not live up to the extremely high standards we have set up for him, namely that he represents the highest good, power and knowledge.

Such a God lacks perfection, and we will be forced to ask ourselves why should we pray to such a minor deity. Yet it would be also a kind of awakening namely that we have been deluding ourselves with the belief that our God is an amalgamation of superheroes with superpowers; he simply is not all the members of the Avengers team combined into one, but rather a (slightly?) flawed being after all. The question would remain though, if he is not the ultimate power and driving force, who is and where are God's superiors?

Equal Balance of Good and Evil

On the other hand, it may just be that his fallen angel is not as inferior as we tend to or are made to believe and that he actually poses a serious threat and is a dangerous rival to the Almighty's plans. It seems a bit paradoxical to claim that one should be aware of the powers and temptations of the Evil One and still assert that God is much more powerful and ultimately running the show.

Why then does God not simply stamp and erase the devil out of the equation? With a swoop God would stop the fallen angel's evil emanations, his nefarious influence and foothold on the world.

That he doesn't may either mean that he doesn't want to or - and this is our assumption here - that he is not fully able to. It might be that they are close in their range of powers (like the brothers Thor and Loki) or that they are not as independent and powerful as they may seem to us; rather it may all depend on people's (free) will that decides who will gain the upper hand down here with little or no interference from above.

Yet for our present purposes, we can see them struggle in rather equal strength, day versus night, good versus evil, and it may be this kind of tension that creates the schizophrenic and fluctuating nature of our own existence. We are capable of magnificent feats and inventions and at the same time are at each other's throats killing each other and our very own living environment to boot.

In other words, the problem of evil exists simply because there is discord upstairs where the two strong forces quarrel with each other, while we are but pawns in this “game.”

God is Just Way too Busy Running a Multiverse

Imagine running a company with more than 7 billion people employed. Not only that but you have to watch them 24 hours non-stop and answer their calls and act upon their wishes around the clock.

At the same time, you need to ensure that they do not take foolish actions (which is their tendency) and you need to create a damage control contingency plan for the environment and for the maintenance and necessary balance of the ecosystem.

Let alone having to deal with all the unseen presences, from souls in the afterlife to all the angels and demons that surround and often challenge him on a daily basis. At the same time, he would have to deal with his often rebellious son who may, more often than not, criticize his own father.

And now let us expand it a little more and look at the whole universe, which is perhaps only a fraction of a wider and maybe even endless multiverse that, like a mirror-to-mirror reflection, may be containing other multiverses ad infinitum.

How is all that feasible and manageable, even for God Almighty himself? I believe that the demands and responsibilities on God are too high even if he has infinite powers and patience. So even God must employ others to deal with “pettier” issues, his own staff of angels. And since they are not as perfect as he is, there will be a mix-up or two along the way and God would have to rectify the whole thing because ultimately, he is the one responsible as the Commander-in-Chief of Heaven and Earth.

Finally, it is also possible that the problem of evil may be due to a combination of all three factors. Our expectations of God may end up ultimately so high and demanding that not even God can satisfy them. And hence, evil will exist, but we can only hope and do our utmost best to ensure that good will prevail overall.