Saturday, July 18, 2015

Evolution of Defaults

What is a cat? Define the word "cat" and I can tell you what is and what is not a cat, objectively. That is, I can look at the external object presented to me and tell you definitively if it is a cat or not based on the definition of "cat" that is being used. The definition itself, however, is derived from its usage which means that it is fuzzy and unclear due to the wide variety of possible usages and different personalities that use the word to different ends.

A cat could refer to a housecat. A jungle cat. A toy cat. A person being referred to as "cat." An artistic rendering of a cat. A person with feline characteristics.

However, when using the term "cat" there tends to be a common usage that we default to in order to facilitate communication. Life would be long and tedious if we had to sort out the specific definition of every word being used; we tend to look at the context and then come to the most common usage of the word that fits that context. So if I say "the cat is being annoying," no one pictures me rolling my eyes at a lion or pulling out my phone to ignore Selina Kyle making off with my jewelry; neither of those are default definitions of "cat" in that context.

However, "cat" is generally noncontroversial and no one is really going to lose sleep over the specifics of the word's usage. If we use the word "man," though, now things can get good and mucky. Because I could be using "man" in a moral sense, a biological sense, a spiritual sense, a sexual sense, a psychological sense, what have you. Even given context, the default definitions are mucky enough to require discussion and organization.

Suppose I say, "a man wouldn't do that." It seems clear that I am using "man" in a moral or spiritual sense, but then we must not only argue over the morality of the action that I said a man would not perform but we must also argue over the fundamental morality of man in the abstract. People from the same background might agree with statements of this form, but two people from two different ways of life are likely to squabble. The default definition of "man" in this sense is too varied between peoples.

Now currently there is an ongoing debate about the default definition of "man" in the sexual and identity sense. If you ask whether or not Caitlyn Jenner is a man or a woman, well, obviously the answer depends on the definition being used. Jenner still has a Y chromosome, was never capable of reproduction, and has feminine characteristics as a result of medical and cosmetic intervention; Jenner also identifies as a woman, presents themselves as female to society, perceives self as a female, and is now trying to fill the role of a woman in society. By some definitions he is objectively male and by some definitions she is objectively female.

So what is the debate? The debate is not about a true definition of male and female because there is no true definition, the debate is not about whether or not a certain set of criteria is being met because it is clear when a criteria is met and when it is not, but the debate is a non-violent use of influence to try to decide on a default definition of male and female. The end goal is that when someone says "female" without clearly defining the term - that is, when it is being used for common communication - the default understanding will either encompass or exclude Jenner.

This is how defaults evolve and change over time. Every time another person begins defaulting to a certain definition of a term it spreads the influence of that default definition. Conflicting definitions being used as defaults by different people leads to separation and alienation of those groups - either a single default will prevail over time or the different defaults will gain differing status among different people groups. With the rise of social media and the interconnectedness of the internet it is more difficult than ever before for a group to simply separate their conversation from the larger conversation; the larger conversation is likely to bleed in.

Nearly every ongoing social debate can be seen as a struggle to determine the default definition of a term. It is agreed, for example, that killing innocent people is wrong. This is not in dispute. What is disputed is what a "innocent person" is, does it include fetuses, especially intelligent animals, individuals who may have ties to malevolent organizations? Marriage equality comes down to a dispute over the definition of marriage, in far too many possible configurations to bother listing.

The way one wins such a debate is not by appealing to facts, appealing to authority, appealing to tradition, or appealing to anything at all really. The way one wins such a debate is by using language in a certain way and insisting that others do the same. It is fundamentally a matter of force and influence, not a matter of investigation or research.

After you win or lose, wait a generation. It remains in flux.


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Mechanisms of Impression

You read, and then you forget what you read. You watch, and then you forget what you watched. A few tiny fragments stay with you, but on the whole whatever media you consume will soon be lost. The effect is greater for some than for others, but as a rule it is difficult to carry our impressions with us for very long where we can consciously recover them.

That is, so long as we our relying on our natural memory forming processes.

Memories are strengthened through repeated access. Unless you have use for the memory, the memory is likely to atrophy. However, the things that are useful are rarely the things we wish to live for or wish to carry with us. What we tend to want to fill our minds with are the aesthetic, which is typically quite useless.

One must find a way to make the aesthetic useful, which usually means becoming an artist oneself. In this way we see that fully appreciating the aesthetic also means developing the ability to create. For one remembers more and more of the details and structures of other works when one is actively working with ones own details and structures which can find inspiration and challenge from without.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

An Essential Flavor

I am and I remain an advocate for non-centralized value systems; I do not believe that human beings - in general, anyway - have a hierarchy of values with a summum bonum up top that provides value to everything beneath. We have distinct values - competing values. However, I have also noticed that humans have a tendency toward an essential flavor in their values - something that they feel should be present in all their pursuits and experiences lest a feeling of absence be experienced.

This "essential flavor" does not necessarily give the experience its value, but it is something that is sought and expected, and when it is not present it leaves the perceiver feeling as though there is something inadequate. These "essential flavors" seem to take the form of a profound interest or preoccupation and when experiences do not account for this interest or preoccupation the person may feel as though they are a bit distracting.

To illustrate the concept, imagine a mother who can no longer lose herself in anything that does not in some way better her children. Imagine the devout believer who feels dissatisfied when he cannot tie his moment to God. Imagine the addict who no longer enjoys his activities unless he can enjoy them with his substance of choice.

To understand a person's desired essential flavor is one of the quickest ways to see how that person could be given satisfaction or given despair. Remove it from their life and, though their life remains rich, for a time it will darken and become gray without the aspect that they have come to crave. Add it to their lives, and perhaps even the most mundane of activities can be enriched with that special spark that will keep them content in the midst of it.

Monday, June 29, 2015

What Kills Gods?

Nietzsche declared God dead, and I think it is safe to say that for the most part his declaration was premature but maybe not altogether wrong. Without reference to specific statistics (although you can look to the Pew Forum for confirmation if you're so inclined), it seems safe to say that if God is not dead, he's at least downsizing considerably.

There is an impulse that I often see that attributes the death of God to enlightenment. The story goes that man needed God because man was ignorant and needed explanations for his world, so he wrote God in all of the gaps. The gaps got smaller. There was less room to be occupied by God. So we killed him. Knowledge killed superstition.

This is not altogether wrong, but it misunderstands the complexity of human beings. It supposes that humanity were just sitting around trying to understand things, but in fact humanity has a whole life to live with concerns that have nothing to do with explanations.

In fact I imagine that if we were so inclined we could sit down and map out rough estimates of a number of different impulses that make God-talk appealing. And as each of those impulses is satisfied by some innovation other than God we will be able to watch the ranks of religious drop further and further. Because what kills gods is people ceasing to need them and then redirecting their energies and resources elsewhere.

However, we will also come to a group of impulses that is only satisfied by religious talk, and in these areas no amount of innovation over time will ever replace the need for religion.

Impulses like the need to relate to essential mystery. The need to transcend spacetime. And the need for a sense of cosmic justice. These are needs that will never be satisfied by any increase in knowledge, technology, or prosperity.

So knowing what it is that kills gods also shows that God will never quite die.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Originality in Fields

Fields of study can be divided into two camps: progressive and non-progressive. The basic difference being that progressive fields of study build up over time to include newer, better concepts and ideas. Non-progressive fields of study do not.

The sciences are progressive fields of study: there are standards in place that show how available theories and data in this day are objectively better than the theories and data available in previous ages.

Art and philosophy are non-progressive. Not only are there no agreed upon standards that allow us to call any one time period better than any other, but the ideas at play don't really change much either. In general any given philosophy is going to be a temporal spin on a timeless concept; art likewise is more the history of new styles of depicting the same situations or telling the same stories.

We can see that this line tends be drawn roughly along the edge of that which is perceived and that which is lived. The studies of things that are perceived tend to be progressive because, in the end, it is nothing more than the collection of observations. If you have only observed one phenomena today and two phenomena tomorrow, well, that is progress. On the other hand, in terms of that which is lived (Aesthetics, Ethics, Religion, with a nod to Kierkegaard) these things are common to all humans and fluctuate because of the situations men find themselves in. The ways of living are timeless, it is only the situations that change. This is why over time art and philosophy change to reflect the situation, but the core ideas do not change.

And one must be content to know those areas where progress cannot be made.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Not Oneness, but Harmony

What about union to the tribe? What about the picture of the self who dies to become part of something greater than itself? The one who is so much a part of the tribe that it ceases to be an individual?

Not only is this not possible, the self will always remain a removable atom, but it is not necessary to aspire to. To ensure the coordination of a larger body does not require the removal of selves, but rather harmony among its parts. That desires and aspirations within the tribe should work together rather than being competitive is what is needed to be a part of something greater.

This too is a matter of ego. An ego may need to die to ensure harmony, but the self cannot. What is the result of such ego sacrifice? Only the creation of a new ego - one that exists in harmony.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Death to the Ego

What then of the veneration of those who overcome the ego? What then of the myths of the hero who prevails over the self?

Indeed, where does that leave the notion of self-sacrifice?

Self-sacrifice in the pursuit of Oneness is misguided, for it is still your experience of self-sacrifice and your experience of Oneness. Rather, prevailing over the ego is still to be venerated and the myths should continue to be told. For ego is not the same as a self: ego is the story about the body that houses the self.

Those stories can always be changed. At times such a narrative may need to be annihilated. This is the proper death of the ego.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Melancholy of the Disinterested

There are those few who cannot seem to attain flow, however. They have not yet found that experience that can draw them out of self-awareness and into a state of pure fixation on some part of the world. For them the world becomes grey and life is melancholic, for they cannot escape the anemic experience of being self fixated on self.

They may take up this or that activity, but it never arouses the passions enough to shrink the fixation on self. The world remains grey.

This is one form of what we now call depression. The solution is elusive: one either continues searching for the thing that arouses the passions, or one resigns themselves to the melancholic life of self-fixation.

I, for one, would never denounce a person for being in such a state.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Impulse Towards Oneness

When the introspective self finds itself melancholic it may turn toward the world to find fresh air. A passing interaction may be soothing, but far too much self-awareness will keep the experience shallow. So the passing interaction becomes deeper and deeper as self-awareness shrinks. In this is a greater intensity of experience, and one may begin wanting less and less self-awareness.

At some degree this becomes the impulse towards Oneness. The desire to be so fully connected to something else that one ceases to be separate entirely. This impulse can then be enshrined as an ideal or as a "proper state of being." Those who enshrine such an impulse may come to see the self as a hindrance to the proper state of Oneness.

This, however, is nothing more than nonsense. For it is still your experience. It is still the World as I found it even if the fixation shifts from the I to the World.

Remove the enshrinement and you have the aspiration to what we now call "flow." There is no killing the self to attain flow, flow is an experience unto the self as well.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Essential Melancholy of Self Fixated on Self

You are a self. This fact is not melancholic inherently. What is melancholic is when a self fixates on the self.

How is it that the self is known? Through experience of the world.

However a self may also seek after the self. Famously Hume tried this and found that it could not be done - leading him to deny that there is a self at all. This is not a necessary motion, for the self is found in the perception of things outside the self. However, when the self tries to fixate on the self it leads only to melancholy, for there is nothing there to perceive.

When there is nothing there to perceive, there is only thin air, boredom, and starvation. This leads to melancholy.