Wednesday, February 22, 2012


For nowhere, either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble, does a man retire than into his own soul, particularly when he has within him such thoughts that by looking into them he is immediately in perfect tranquillity; and I affirm that tranquillity is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind.

-Marcus Aurelius; Meditations

I can't say I've had this much fun reading a book of philosophy in awhile since I picked up Meditations, and I suppose I'm enjoying it largely because there is a great deal that is useful in it as well as a great deal that I feel no qualms at all about discarding. This is what I would call philosophy of real life, the sort of thing you get from old guys at work, grandfathers, and other people who one might trust simply because they've had a lot of time to experience life and work out the kinks for themselves. However, one must keep in mind that even though they follow their philosophy because it has worked for them, they will portray it as being in some way the "right" philosophy or the "right" way to do things. As such, the things they say have to be held with a certain skepticism; they claim to have arrived at their conclusions because their conclusions are true and they have discovered that they are true, but maybe there's just a little failure to consider alternatives, a little failure to see how their philosophy stands in relation to all the others, a little comfort-seeking, a little arrogance, some self-elevation.

I am only to the fifth book thus far, and I already want to begin commenting on the book, but I suppose I should wait until I have consumed the book in its entirety before I pour any significant effort into a response. As it stands, here are some general impressions that the book has left on me.

-I think Marcus Aurelius was struggling with a fear of death, he speaks about the fear of death with something of disdain or desperation, almost like he was trying to shame himself out of it. His comments on accepting the shortness of life range from quite interesting (his argument in the 14th point of the second book where he argues that, because we live in the present, all people really lose the same thing at death: a single moment called the present) to the boneheaded (his argument in the 50th point of the fourth book that because the past is infinite and the future is infinite, it does not matter whether a life last three days or three generations, which is a confusion of which measure to use to get a meaningful measurement).

-His thoughts on the workings of the universe and his recommendation that we accept fate strike very close to home for me. For the first time about six months ago I saw that determinism can be a profound comfort, not a disappointment. His thoughts on this topic are, to me, the most valuable.

-His comments on being satisfied with one's portion has not aged well. He repeatedly exhorts the reader (although, these are directed to himself, aren't they?) to be satisfied with what portion of the universe has been allotted to him. That may have worked in Aurelius's society where one knew early on what role one would play in the world, it works less well in our society where we have a lot of options available to us and a lot of ways to improve our lot in life. In short, a lot more of our lot in life is determined by our behavior rather than the events that preceded us.

-His central concept of living according to nature is flawed. If I understand him, I suppose that the whole thing must be swept away if one accepts a fact/value distinction. Aurelius looks to nature for guidance in his behavior and believes that he can strive to live according to his nature; on the contrary, I say that even those things he finds reprehensible in himself and humanity are just as much a part of his nature. He has no choice but to live according to nature. Of course, he advocates living according to reason, but he directs his reason toward nature to help him determine his course. All in all, a case of too much faith in reason and facts, which lends the book a creepy feeling in the more anarchistic areas of my soul.

I'm considering doing commentaries on single aphorisms that I like later on, or perhaps just a response to the book as a whole, or perhaps never bringing it up again. I have not yet decided.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

You Have to Give Up

Notice the Fingers Remain Separate
Over the course of a few weeks, I found myself wanting to officially leave behind the atheist label and re-enter the theist camp. I had been wondering about questions of epistemology and, without denying that evidence for the existence of God was sorely lacking, found that I wanted to place faith in him all the same and began to think that it would not be unjustified if I did. I cannot deny that there were a lot of emotional and non-rational reasons I found myself wanting to return to God, but I refused to actually return until I had settled the issue of what a rational faith in God would actually entail.

It all stemmed from a realization I had: given that determinism is true, every event in your life could be considered ordained by God so long as he arranged the particles of the universe at at least one moment in time. From there, I speculated as to what is meant by a “soul.” If we accept determinism then we also accept that the human body is no less a part of the motion of particles in the universe, and that while we have a will we do not have a will that transcends the workings of the Great Machine, which meant that any idea that life was a test or that we were going to judged according to our success or failure in any particular area had to be abandoned since all of our successes and failures could ultimately be traced back to an act of God. What then is the self, I wondered, and I came to the conclusion that the self, if it was anything, was something that could be called “I” that was tied to the motions of my body but that, nonetheless, transcended the universe.

From here I had a view of the cosmos I found that I could believe in: the universe as a work of art and as a refinery, that every tragedy and every triumph was ordained by God through natural processes for the means of creating a diversity of souls. Souls which would otherwise be perfectly equal and homogeneous, could be given diversity by in some way causing their nature to be determined by the natures of the meat machines on earth. Since they would transcend time, their nature would be determined by the entirety of the machine's life, not any one particular instance, and there would be no reason to suppose that eternity operated according to its own timeline as though we had to wait for the body to die for the soul to be released. Life, then, was all about experiences. Experiences that defined us and, somehow, our eternal souls.

The fact that the world had numerous competing views of God would no longer be an issue, since I simply said that all ideas of the ineffable were, by nature, wrong. Nonetheless, I did not need to get rid of religion altogether, I could say that religions sprang up because they were deterministically ordained by God to spring up as they served his purpose of refining our natures.

God is transcendent. Our souls are transcendent. So the lack of scientific evidence is irrelevant for them. It would be impossible to have any kind of sensible evidence, or even any kind of sensible notion of these things. Since they transcend our universe, they transcend our thoughts. Whether they're nonexistent or super-existent, the universe would look the same to us. And from this basis, with God and selves safely beyond anything we could possibly understand, the concept of 'faith' finally began to make sense. Faith is trusting in something incomprehensible, unknowable, and non-rational. It was not a contradiction of reason, it was a moving-beyond, it was traveling into territory where our reason would not do us any good.

With this conception, it would be impossible for me to ever gain ground in a debate with a skeptic, since by my own account God was not existent. But at least I had something I thought I could believe in. Besides, if I came to such a belief and someone else did not, by my account, both of us came to our respective beliefs through the arrangement of particles ordained by God. I no longer needed others to believe as I did for me to be reassured about the fate of their souls.

Everything was falling into place. But I waited. I wanted to examine matters from all the angles. I wanted, if necessary, to be able to write a book explaining my transition. I refused to take the decision lightly. [EDIT: although you may not be able to tell by this blog. Reading through it the next day, much of it seems sloppy. I wrote early this morning before sleeping]

And what I found was that such an idea produced a change in my everyday life. In the course of a day I was in constant anxiety over facts. That is, I was in anxiety about the the fact that I was putting my weight on a step that I had no reason to believe was there. This took the form of anxiety over my nature as a human being (am I a transcendent soul? Or am I just a meat computer?) most of the time, other times it would be the fact that I was starting to define myself in relation to something that I knew I had no reason to believe was there; but neither of these corresponding ideas had to be present, at almost all moments of the day I had a palpable sense of wrongness, anxiety, and insecurity even without a thought accompanying the feeling. The worse part of it all, though, was that every everyday occurrence was accompanied by a feeling that there was something not to be trusted in it, that there was some devastating fact lurking in the shadows that would invalidate everyday life.

It was the little things: talking to my girlfriend on the phone, cleaning up a back room, doing a little exercise. I couldn't shake the feeling that all of these things would be somehow invalidated, and I do not even know what I mean exactly by “invalidated,” except that I would somehow see that my typical responses to these occasions would seem inappropriate if I just discovered some new fact that lurked out there somewhere.

It all reached a head one night as I lay in my bed. I realized that I had made knowledge, certainty, facts, and reason into enemies. This would not stand, I lived in a world composed exclusively of facts, I could not survive making them my enemy. As I lay there thinking, I realized that I had overlooked the obvious.

God was outside the universe, outside existence, whether that meant he was transcendent or nonexistent. That meant that from my point of view, he wasn't there. And, if my idea about souls was true, then it did not matter a single iota if I believed in them. All my ideas were aiming at some idea of epistemic justification, but I did not even really believe in epistemic justice to begin with, due to my ethical nihilism. God had given me no real reason to believe in him, and presumably that either meant that he did not exist or that he did not particularly want me to believe in him.

And from there the world started to make just a little more sense again. I could act in everyday life without feeling as though I were participating in something low and broken. I am not even certain I can put it in sensible language, it was all stomach acid and nerves that I was interacting with. So, to resort to cliché, I had to give up a heavenly mind to experience any earthly good.

For what it is worth, there is nothing about this that contradicts, at least, Christian thought. 1 John 2: 15-17 makes that clear to me, anyway.

It seems to me that, given the situation that we are in, we have to give up. We just have to give up. Give up on God, give up on objective ethics, give up on souls. That is not to say that all of these things are not actually in some way out there, simply that we are not in a position to know anything about them. And while there may be other possible explanations, if we only consider the possibility of us being the creation of a transcendent being or the possibility of the universe containing everything necessary for its present state, then in both cases we may as well just go about our lives since either God has not seen fit to show himself to us or there is nothing for us to be shown.

And with that, I think it's time to step away from religious thought for awhile. Not forever, but for now. I remain, for the time, an atheist. I end my thought on the subject with this thought for now: where we previously might have lived in faith, now we can live in hope. You can hope there's a God. You can hope there's a heaven. You can hope that there are souls. That has not been taken from you, these hopes are still available. You can choose to turn the hope into faith, if you like, but if you're anything like me you won't function well looking at the world that way. For those people with characters similar to mine, we must just live in hope. Once you do that, you can set some of those unanswerable questions aside for awhile, and focus instead on the little mundane questions that must be answered daily, the little stupidities that make life worth living.

And if there is a God, trust Him to manage His own will.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Rules of Thought

We have no independent means of testing the truth of a proposition. We cannot check the back of the book for the answer. We have methods of discovering the truth, but if the methods are not working we would not know. We are not completely helpless, we have some additional methods of testing our methods. If our truths are contradicting each other, we know that we have gone wrong. If our truths lead us to behave in ways that do not work when interacting with reality, we know that we have gone wrong. The first of these leads to the theory of truth called coherentism; the second to pragmatism. Neither of these show that we have come to truth, though, it merely shows that some falsehoods are so false that we have ways of knowing them to be false.

We have been called “rational animals.” That is, animals with the capacity for reason. That is, animals with a faculty designed to come to truth. However, whatever we have that is coming to truth is bound up with an object that is reliant upon biology. Our brains. Or perhaps we could say that it is our entire body, since the brain is dependent upon the senses for information to reason through. Our senses provide the information that the brain then processes. One must understand, however, that because we are animals all of our processing is interested processing. Our thinking is thought toward some end. Psychology and neuroscience (or, to use a computer metaphor, the study of software and hardware respectively) have both shown that our minds are full of bias. They function in a way that would be considered erroneous – if their ultimate aim were truth. In fact, our entire lives are conducted in ways that seem strange if looked at by a perspective that is trying not to be human.

If we accept evolutionary psychology, our brains operate toward the ends of reproduction and maximizing survival. It is hoped that this includes truth as a means toward maximizing survival, the hope following the line of thought that holding beliefs that correspond to reality will increase our odds of behaving in a way that will ensure a long life. This is just a hope, though. And in fact, there may be facts and parts of reality that are best not believed to ensure a long life. This is why we cannot depend on our brains to find facts.

This is not a new notion, this is what we've thought since Plato. Back then it was phrased differently: Plato believed that reason and emotion were two horses pulling us in separate directions. It was hoped that we could pursue reason, live according to the facts, and place emotion under reason's dominion. We wanted all those biases and erroneous thoughts to belong to the emotion or to a misuse of the reason. If we could just pursue reason correctly, then we could live rationally in accordance with the facts of reality. The difference between then and now is that we are now aware that what we call the reason is just as much a part of our animal brain as our emotion, and we are beginning to realize that reason must be the servant of emotion or we will fall into apathetic nihilism due to the distinction between facts and values. Some of us are fighting this second realization in philosophy, but neuroscience and its study of prefrontal cortex damage are quite secure in its reliability.

Our brains are biased. Our brains do not work to discover truth. We are in fear of this, though, because we have an emotional craving for truth. The possibility of our lives being lived according to lies fills us with anxiety. Even if the truth is ugly, we would rather see exactly what kind of ugly it is, since our imagination is bound to come up with something uglier than reality could ever be. So we export our reasoning. We stop relying on our brain's natural reasoning processes and we create rules for reasoning. This was Aristotle's project. We still are not finished. We want to know how we can know, that's why we developed concepts like epistemic justification. We want to be able to think in such a way that we transcend all of our typical pitfalls and think strictly according to the facts, and for that we have developed rules of thinking.

Again, though, we cannot check the back of the book for the answers. We cannot ensure that these rules are actually helping us flesh out a picture of reality. We check them for consistency, we check to see if they work when we interact with reality, but neither of those are the same thing as ensuring that they correspond to reality. How, then, do we develop the rules?

This is where we are floundering. We develop rules that allow us to come to the truths we already know. Or we develop rules based on the way we know objects in reality relate to each other. Or we develop rules according to pure reason. And then, in the course of following these rules we discover that things we had taken for granted were wrong. But, then, the rules themselves were based on ideas whose truth we took for granted. The search for truth and the search for reliable rules of truth-seeking thought are hopelessly circular.

And it makes me wonder just whether the search is likely to pay off.