Saturday, June 30, 2012

When Does Death Hurt?

You are going to die. Probably not today, possibly not for a long time, but you are still going to die. If death lies a long time out in the future, though, it would seem that the harm of death also lies in the future. This is not the case, though, after you die you no longer exist and therefore cannot be harmed by death. You might say that the harm of death lies in the moment of death, but that is just a single moment where you transition from existence to non-existence, any harm would be eliminated in the very moment that is claimed to be a harm.

Death is a harm right now. Death may occur some time in the future, but the harm of death – or rather the effect of death – takes place right now in the present moment. Because even if you do not die for seventy years, you are still a mortal right now. In this moment you lead an existence where death is both a possibility and a certainty, and this fact is written into every thing you do in your life, every plan you make, every choice on how you spend your time. The fact that time is running out is a fact that is true right now, not in the future.

If it were not for death, we would not be the particular individuals that we are. We could, given enough time, become general humans. We could sample everything in life, become familiar with everything, involve ourselves in every possible situation. The fact of death is what forces us to carve out our own particular identity, values, and journey because we have a limited time in which to exist. And the fact of that limited time is a fact right now.

Friday, June 29, 2012

American Psycho - Or American P-Zombie?

A Review - Or More of a Rambly Kind of Reader Response that I Posted on LibraryThing

When I read this book, I felt mostly bored and annoyed. I actually had to skip two of the chapters where Pat Bateman describes music, I just could not bring myself to care. I suspect that this says more about my ability to appreciate what Ellis was writing than about the actual quality of writing itself; if you can keep interested in the book, then I salute you.

What is interesting to me about the book is something that was lost on me when I first read it, and only became notable to me years later. I highlighted it, because it seemed important, but it was only later that I realized why it was important.

"...there is an idea of Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable: I simply am not there. It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference toward it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed. Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behavior must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this—and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed—and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing …. "

I think that Patrick Bateman was Ellis's idea of what a Philosophical Zombie would actually be like - or, to put it into more mystical terms - Bateman is a human being without a soul. Currently there is a debate about qualia, about whether or not "what it's like"-ness is reducible to the natural processes of our physical bodies or if we need to appeal to something non-physical to account for subjective experience. The idea, I believe first conceived by Kripke but utilized in arguments by David Chalmers, is that it is possible for a human being to exist and behave like any other human being, but completely lack subjective experience.

I take Patrick Bateman to be both a critique and a conception of P-Zombie. On the one hand, his entire existence is surface and external. He does not have an inner life, he fixates on external details like clothes, appearance, style, popularity, and cannot find any kind of personal judgments of his own. He thinks in terms of what is popular and fashionable, but does not bring any opinion of his own to the table. In this sense, he is a P-Zombie in Chalmer's conception, he behaves just like us, but he's dark inside. He is not really there.

On the other hand, he's a sadistic mass-murdering cannibal and rapist. This is not typical among me and those that I know, but your experience may vary. In this sense, I think he's a critique of Chalmer's conception, he shows that somebody with no inner subjective experience would be unable to behave like a human being. He would become cruel and bestial because he would just be reacting mechanically to stimuli: he would fall back on humanity's baser instincts of hunger, sex, and violence (read the book and ask yourself what percentage of the book is about restaurants, physical attractiveness and rape, and murder and torture. It has to be at least 85%).

I think that Bateman is meant to be an idea of a human being without a soul, but Ellis does not agree that such a person would behave like anyone else. I am ignoring for the time the critique of 1980s Yuppie culture because I am not that interested in a critique of 1980s Yuppie culture. It is this idea of a dark-inside man that I think is interesting, and it's one that makes me think I'll give this book another read sometime soon.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Experiential Relationships - Not the Experiences Themselves

We can not communicate directly what it is like to experience something.

We can communicate the way experiences (qualia, if you like) relate to one another.

In this way, we can say that "lasagna tastes like spaghetti, just cheesier." Or we could say, more generally, "lasagna tastes mild, saucy, meaty, and Italian." But to say "mild," "saucy," "meaty," and "Italian," is to refer to other qualia. If someone has never experienced sauciness, meatiness, mildness (or, perhaps no variations in intensity so that they do not realize a variation called "mildness" is possible) or experienced oregano, basil, and garlic seasoning, there is no real way to communicate it to them.

Someone who has never eaten lasagna, but has eaten ricotta cheese, noodles, tomato sauce, ground beef, and Italian seasoning could conceivably form a picture of what lasagna would be like without ever tasting it. And someone could communicate the experience to him by describing the taste of lasagna as a relation between these other more basic experiences.

The qualia is still not communicated. Only the relationship between qualia is communicated. If the person lacks the prior experience, it is like a missing word in his vocabulary. He misses part of the description, there is a word without significance for him.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

A Different Role Produces Different Fears and Loathings

Background Information:
1. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is one of my favorite books and one of my favorite movies.

2. I recently started a job in retail.

I wanted to enjoy a story, but did not feel that I had the mental energy to focus on reading a book. So, instead, I turned on an old favorite: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. And I found something disturbing inside of me while I was watching it.

I did not particularly like what I was seeing.

Do not misunderstand, it had occurred to me long ago that Duke and Gonzo were running in fear of threats that did not exist. They represented the burnt out psyches that the failed drug generation produced: they certainly were not to be emulated. And yet, prior to this viewing I always found something beautiful in their anarchic approach to the world. They knew how to ride chaos – society be damned.

When I watched them this time, though, it was not Duke and Gonzo that I was rooting for. It was the people around them. Decent people trying to do their jobs and earn their wage. The people that Duke and Gonzo carelessly insulted, degraded, and disregarded. I could no longer get on board with the anarchy; I knew that these people had games and goals that they loved and pursued genuinely and passionately. Why should Gonzo and Duke be allowed to run roughshod over people who are just trying to make their living?

When the film ended, I could still consider it a movie I liked, but something had changed in me. Not just in a moral or evaluative sense – my tastes had changed. The movie did not appeal to me as it once did. I felt as though I were just watching nonsense. It is all nonsense, of course, nonsense that tried to embody the mindset of failed revolutionaries who carried on their revolution through the use of self-inflicted intoxication rather than anything that might have proved effective; this time, though, it just seemed like nonsense. I didn't have the old sympathy for Dr. Thompson that I once had, and without that sympathy you're less willing to look deeper into the nonsense.

What happens to your literary tastes when you officially become one of society's participants rather than a self-important outlying masturbator? I used to love books from an outsiders point of view: Notes from Underground, Fight Club, The Stranger. Is it possible that playing the role of a responsible member of society could end up choking that part of me off?

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Will is Free - But What is it Free From?

If there is a discussion of Calvinism or God's omniscience and someone says, "so do we have free will?" we treat 'free will' in this case as meaning 'can I act contrary to the will of God?'

And if we discuss fate and destiny and someone says "so do we have free will?" we treat is as asking "is my whole life already determined, or is it to be decided?"

But if someone just says "I have free will!" then we do not know what he means. What is your will free from?

Is your will free from yourself? Well, then that is not your will. That's just will twisting in the aether somewhere - random and chaotic.

Well, yes, you might say. My will is not free with regards to myself. Well, then don't call it free will unless you have some context that tells what it is free from, unless of course you want to speak in absolutes that even you do not agree with.

Of course, that will is your will, and you are determined by some proportion of nature and/or nurture which means that your will is determined by some proportion of nature and/or nurture. Your will is still free, depending on what you mean it to be free from.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Knowledge As Opposed to Belief

Knowledge has been called "justified true belief." This seems to be the usage of "knowledge" invoked when someone says, "I don't believe, I know!"

But for knowledge to be "justified" we need some kind of criteria that determines what makes a belief "justified." This criteria can be stated as a list of rules that must be followed to turn beliefs into knowledge.

Therefore, the distinction between knowledge and belief in this case is just a matter of rules that dictate what knowledge is and what knowledge is not. And those rules will be no different than other rules: morals adopted to attain some end.

True beliefs cannot be that end, as we are trying to determine how it is that we will categorize a belief as true. For true beliefs to be our guiding principle, we would need an independent method of determining whether or not a belief is true.

But that's only interesting to people who like squabbling over whether or not something is really known. For anyone who has ever been in a situation where it made sense to distinguish between what they believe and what they know, they know that they were just assuring someone of their confidence in what they said. In such situations, the rules that dictate knowledge as opposed to belief are implicitly understood - we know what "knowledge" looks like: it's only in philosophy that we think we can get to some kind of rule that exists beyond the needs of our present situation.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Shelf Space

My last post was about how all the tiny factors in an experience make a difference, even if their individual contributions do not amount to much. This post is about a concern I have.

At one time you had to be part of the elite aristocracy to hear innovative music, or you could hear the old, folksy favorites if you knew someone who was good enough at singing with a few pints in him.

Later in time you just had to have access to a radio and/or enough money to purchase a record; of course obscure recordings could be hard to find and it's perfectly possible that you could hear a song once or twice and then lose it for the rest of your life. There was a time when you could really be proud of your music collection, who knows how hard it was for you to find some of those recordings?

Then it became a matter of buying CDs, listening to the radio, and watching MTV. You could record the music videos, you could order CDs through the mail, or you could just go to the store and buy whatever music you happened to like. If it was obscure, sure, it was still hard to get ahold of, but for the most part you had as much music as you could afford.

At this point, you do not even need to be able to afford it. If you go about things legally you can probably find whatever song you like on YouTube, and if you're willing to bend rules you can freely download pretty much any song you hear and like. In the past you have album jackets and CD cases, now all you have is data. Free data. Data that can be acquired in between texting. Even if its secured legally, it's still just data. You don't have a shelf in your room getting cluttered with band logos from the edges of jewel cases.

Books are a more controversial case of the same phenomenon. For me, I love my cheap Craig tablet that lets me carry a small library with me wherever I go. And yet, I never turn and look at a bookcase covered in books that tell people what ideas or emotions I'm attracted to, I don't experience a variety of fonts, paper textures, cover thicknesses, degrading book stiffness, and I can't act proud that I display epic poetry (perhaps read, perhaps not) in my room. It's all been flattened down to a cover image and the text. Data.

The book reading community has some who want to fight this trend. They will lose. Books will become antiques and novelties. Data is just better. There is no real argument to be made against them: authors write content that you want to read, now the paper, the printing, and the ink industry are rendered superfluous and can be removed from the situation. The only argument against them stems from the point I was making in my last post that all the little factors count: reading a book will be different now than it was before, because it was never just about reading text, there was always a little more to it.

The central assumption behind the superiority of data over traditional publishing means is that it delivers what we want with less superfluous trappings that used to be necessary. That makes it easier to produce and cheaper to consume. And this assumption will be seen as correct, and in a lot of ways it does correctly describe how we see those “superfluous trappings.” And yet, I think that our lives will get a little flatter. Our lives will be a little less full without cover art and CD cases cluttering up our rooms.

I'm not saying we should turn around, we shouldn't. I'm not saying maybe we will reconsider this transition our society is taking – we won't and we shouldn't. What I am saying is that while we're gaining cheaper goods, more storage space, and cleaning lives we are losing artistic content and we are changing the essential experience of purchasing books and music in a way that makes the experiences more anemic. Our lives are getting a little smaller – maybe that means we should find a very rich way to use that new shelf space?

Saturday, June 23, 2012

All the Tiny Factors

In the morning of January 24th, 1999, Jeremy was listening to Sex and Candy by Marcy's Playground when Gary walked up and struck him right across the jaw. Jeremy fell on a patch of grass, which was still wet from the night's dew. In the time that it took Jeremy to realize what was even happening, Gary had climbed on top of him and thrown another fist in Jeremy's face. Jeremy, growing dizzy and lightheaded, reached out harmlessly to try to choke Gary; when this failed, Jeremy grabbed Gary's testicles and squeezed tightly. Gary began throwing blind, frantic punches, while Jeremy's mind reverted to the basic philosophy of “if I squeeze tightly enough, everything will work out.” Gary stood up and pulled away from Jeremy's grasp, allowing nausea to set in. Gary no longer wanted to fight and left. Jeremy went home and spent the day in bed.

What part of this situation was the essential experience? What was the substance, as distinct from the style? Surely this was a negative experience and the part that made it negative was Jeremy being attacked by Gary. But, then, Jeremy also had the experience of defending himself, which is life-affirming and empowering. However, Jeremy defended himself by fighting dirty which is wormy and ignoble. What about Gary? Gary is clearly confident in some regard if he was willing to just walk up and initiate a fight – but will he ever be that way again? He's scarred now, he has been forced to learn humility.

So, the important part of the experience was the fight. The date, the time, the music, the wet grass, that's all style. But then, the experience would be different without them. It was morning in January, which means that it was a cold day, not only that, but Jeremy was listening to Sex and Candy which uses slow, droning vocals. Jeremy was not in any kind of shape to fight, his physiological and emotional state were both calm and slow. He had a longer road to travel to get into a fighting mindset – it would not have been strange for him to have quickly surrendered and just allowed the beating to occur. If it had been spring, if it had been closer to evening, and if he had been listening to passionate, fast-paced, drum-heavy music he might have welcomed the sudden attack. For the rest of his life he might have regarded the whole affair as an exciting moment wherein he felt alive!

Imagine all the details I left out. What kind of parents did Jeremy and Gary have? What kind of grades did they get in school? How old were they? These are obviously important for determining what it was like to be Jeremy or Gary in this situation. But what about questions like what did the air taste like, what was the last thing they saw on TV, what taste was in Jeremy's mouth, how much pressure was in Gary's colon from digestive gases, how far away did Jeremy's friends live, does Jeremy have a good relationship with his family, what was Gary's last sexual fantasy and how long ago was it? These all sounds like irrelevant factors, but they are not.

If Jeremy had loving, supportive parents with whom he had a good relationship, he would not feel ostracized or loathed by the sudden attack. Rather than feeling like an outsider, he would suppose that the man attacking him was some kind of outsider. This would produce a sensation of solidarity in him. On the contrary, if he had a bad relationship with his family, he might have supposed himself more alone in the world and wondered what he had done to offend this man rather than immediately feeling as though he must be in the right and the man clearly in the wrong.

Was Jeremy the sort of man who excelled in society, or the kind of man who found it difficult to play society's games. Was this a bizarre example of a social miscreant attacking a flourishing man, or an example of a screw-up getting forced into a situation where, once again, he was at a disadvantage? In the first case he may have that feeling one gets where you say, “why me?” in the second he may not have felt any surprise at finding himself in this situation.

But then the less obvious factors play a role too: fresh tasting air would cause the violence to seem more sudden and out-of-place, stale tasting air would cause greater feelings of being overwhelmed and being surrounded by indifference and malice. It would be subtle, certainly changing the taste of the air would not cause the whole experience to turn around, but the taste of the air does cause the experience to turn differently.

If Gary was holding back a huge fart, then the fight was probably something he regretted quickly. His own body was rebelling against him. The situation had turned on him. Whereas if his colon was happily gas-free, he could at least feel that it was his body at its best against Jeremy at his best.

If Jeremy's friends lived nearby, he would feel less alone and helpless. Sure, he has been caught off-guard now, but there are options. If he survived, he could quickly find sanctuary and maybe even get revenge. If his friends lived far away, he was standing on foreign ground, he was alone and feel more helpless and submissive.

What was Gary's last fantasy? Was he dominant or submissive in it? Was it hetero- or homosexual? Does attacking Jeremy play into some desire to be able to overwhelm another person? Or is he rebelling against a secret desire to be overwhelmed?

None of these are capable of reversing the situation. They are not critical factors. The experience would be different if any of them were changed, though. They determine the character of the experience for both men, just not to the same degree as the more dramatic factors like “who won?” “how violent was the fight?” and “how did the men know each other?”

We experience as a whole, we do not have to be conscious of all the factors making impressions upon us. When we retell stories or try to analyze them and make sense of them, we feel as though only the “critical factors” deserve attention. But critical factors only produce the broad, wide strokes of our experiences, all the subtler nuances that give our experiences a distinct character come from the tiny factors. Indeed, what makes us ourselves, at least in part, is that even though two people might have the same broad experience, there's a thousand tiny variations that influence what it feels like to us.

Friday, June 22, 2012

In Which I Become More Masturbatory Than Usual

Living well means living a ethical life and doing what one ought to do with what they are given. We have our responsibilities in life, and then there are things we must leave to G-d. The meaning of life is to live and to live well. That is my now my conclusion, G-d cares about our behavior, but we we created simply to be what we are. 
- Some Blogger in 2008

There are ideas and questions that our minds return to time and time again, and our beliefs and answers change over time. The whole enterprise starts feeling a little empty if we aren't evolving and growing. The internet – blogs in particular – give us an opportunity to really see how much we are growing and evolving.

For example, as I have documented over the course of my various blogs, I devoted most of my mental energy to metaethical questions for about three years after I left Christianity. I still devote energy to metaethics frequently. But metaethics are just a part of my larger concern with the meaning of life, with the question of how I ought to live. And to state my position, I would say something like this:

The world is large and out of our individual control. All we can handle is what life presents us in the moment from the points of view we have available to us, because we simply lack the informational resources, time, and energy to look at any matter from all possible angles or to look at all possible matters that may be presented to us. We have to do what makes sense, right now, using our guiding values and principles, and then let the chips fall where they may.

Compare that to the quote at the top. The first quote is explicitly theistic and has faith in an inherent order to the apparent chaos of life, and makes reference to an “ethical life” (whatever that is). But the same basic model underlies both quotes: handle your domain, live your life, do not suppose that you can steer the universe, and don't bother with some hidden endgoal that you need to figure out to pursue.

Now, I fancy that the second quote comes from skepticism of ethical truths, a reluctant acceptance of determinism and fatalism, an appreciation of Nietzsche's √úbermensch and Camus's absurdism (or perhaps just the parody of them that I've cobbled together based on what I have read) coupled with a good sense of humor that keeps me from thinking there's actually anything heroic or epic about either concept, a heavily reserved acceptance of some of Marcus Aurelius's ideas about operating according to ones place in the great machine of nature, and the leftover exhaustion from years of trying to figure out an objective meaning of life.

The first quote was written four years ago. By me. I had just barely left Christianity. Still had faith in some kind of objective ethical truths. No Camus. Hardly any Nietzsche. No Aurelius. Resentment toward determinism and fatalism. And as the up-my-own-ass tone of that earlier blog shows, a severely underdeveloped sense of humor. Has growth occurred? Yes. But the central nerve in my thinking is, at least in this area, the same.

Four years, and I'm just repeating myself. These are the kind of things you have to laugh about if you don't want to end up an alcoholic.