Friday, May 31, 2013

Life is not Art

When I read The Duty of Genius, I came away feeling as though a real saint had lived in the not-too-distance past. I'm getting mushy and sentimental, but the world seemed better for having had a man like Wittgenstein as an example of the kinds of heights and depths a man could reach. His commitment to improve those around him likewise arouses in me a desire to improve those around me in some way.

In what way is this desire mine?

Why did I not have this desire prior to reading the book? Or if I did have it, why was it so anemic until I read the book (this is not to say that it is not still anemic, only to say that reading the book strengthened something)? How can I say that this is my desire when it was aroused by my environment?

But then, my environment could not produce the desire without me as a factor. So it is not as though I could say that it is the environment's desire and then consign myself to oblivion. I am there. I am a part of this.

However, when I read the book I did not read it for the purpose of arousing this desire. I read it wanting it to work some good on myself, but I did not know what good it would be. Like going to a surgeon and saying, "I've heard good things about you, why don't you knock me out and do what seems right to you!" Yes, I took a step in the process, and yes both the book and surgeon have to work with the material I provide them with, but it is not I that built myself into anything. I simply arranged the interaction.

When I see the world this way, I am more of a theist. Because I do not deny that I am there, but I do deny that I am sufficient for life. I can not view my life as a work of art; there is too much that belongs to the world for me to claim myself as any kind of ordered and intentional work. I hold out hope for a kind of determinism that would allow me to call the world God and would allow me to call life a wrestling with God.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Down to the Base

Descartes sought something that could not be doubted, he arrived at cogito ergo sum. His base truth was that he exists because he could not deny that he was thinking. There is no need to rehash the criticism that Descartes received concerning this: suffice it to say he was not basic enough.

Proceed in this way to shrink to the more basic level:

I think. [This casts thought as the activity of my self]
One thinks. [This casts thought as the activity of a self]
It thinks. [This casts thought as an activity]
Thinking. [This casts the base as mental]

This is the basic essence: perception. Phenomena. Appearance. By saying that they are phenomena that we perceive, or by saying that there is a world of phenomena, we go beyond the base in both cases. The base is merely phenomena.

But why would we ever want to live at the base? We must see the base to know what lies beneath us, not to know where we are going to go live. It is good to know that we can tear down the house if we like, but the mere fact that there is a base need not compel us to tear down the house to go live there.

Monday, May 27, 2013

I am a Theist

I stood in my kitchen watching ground beef sizzle in a green pan. The leftover homemade salsa I dumped into the skillet was the only flavoring; I didn't feel like pouring salt on it. My mind began to wander: I imagined someone asking me if I believed in God. I ran over my answer: I am an epistemological agnostic, which places me in the without-theism camp, but I love God and I am willing (or at any rate, willing to will) to let his will prevail over my life and to try to always make the decision to ultimately love my existence no matter how hateful it is on every level short of the ultimate.

Something did not feel right in this, though. There was something different in my character, which resulted in a feeling of dissonance when I gave my answer. Initially I thought that maybe it was certain recent refinements in my thinking and philosophy that produced the dissonance. I sat down and re-read my blog Why I am an Atheist, and found that there was really nothing in that blog that I once agreed with and now no longer did. That blog still describes my stance.

So what is the problem?

I think the problem lies in this: if you ask me if I am a theist, I would ask you "in what sense? According to what game? What schema? What Layer?" But if you refused to clarify and give me context and simply repeated the question (or if I was in a real world situation where asking "in what sense" tends to make people roll their eyes at you), what answer would I give? What would be my default answer to the question if it lacked context?

That is what has changed. In the past my default answer would have been either "atheist" or "agnostic" because I saw the question first in terms of assent to propositions. Now, if you ask if I am a theist, my first response is not to approach the question as a question about my beliefs, but instead as a question about my attitudes and values. In those respects I am a theist through and through.

Therefore, I am a theist. And if you provide me with the adequate context, I will explain to you that I am an atheist. And if you change that context, I will explain to you that I am a theist. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What do Layers Matter?

If Layers matter for anything, they matter for this: a theory might be true, useful, and valuable, but there might be another theory that can sit right where the first theory is that is also true, useful, and valuable. It is a way of looking at the world that preserves the size of the world. So that when asked a question we can respond, "in a sense X, but in other senses, I don't know."

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Practical Illustration of Layers

Why did you watch the movie?

Hedonist Layer: I wanted to feel excitement.
Escapist Layer: I wanted to forget I exist.
Seeker Layer: I wanted to see the world through the director's eyes.
Philosopher Layer: I wanted to see an argument illustrated.
Sentimental Layer: I wanted to relive the memories associated with this movie.
Critical Layer: I wanted to see whether the film met my criteria for a good film or not.
Commentator Layer: I wanted to be able to talk to people about this film.
Social Layer: I wanted an event to center my evening around.
Sexual Layer: I am attracted to the actors/actresses in the film.

There is one phenomenon: that of watching a movie. I say that these layers wrap around that phenomena in a way. If you ask why you watched it, you can appeal to the layers. If asked why anyone watches movies, you can appeal to the layers. But these Layers co-exist, there is not a proper Layer.

To each Layer exists different value judgments that would be valid or invalid. To each Layer are different things that are reasonable and things that are unreasonable.

A Brief Note on Layers

I have lately been thinking very much over an idea that I would currently like to call "Layers." This is, of course, a terrible name. I need something hard to pronounce to put in front of it, but for the time being, "Layers."

I do not yet entirely know what it is that I mean by Layers, but maybe I can illustrate it with a few examples.

Let us suppose that we observe a man giving away a sizable inheritance from his father, leaving him almost completely impoverished. Suppose that his father worked in one field his entirely life and the father groomed the man to work as he did, then the man goes to work in a different field. Suppose that we saw the man leave his homeland. Now suppose someone comes along and offers the theory that we are observing a man who is compelled to reject paternal authority.

By Layers I mean something like responding 'yes, that is the full and complete explanation. That is the best possible explanation you can give. At least according to certain criteria and certain context. In another context, according to another criteria, not at all.'

Perhaps what I mean is something like this: suppose our primary concern was the relationship between children and parents. In this case, saying that we are observing a man who is compelled to reject paternal authority is the only sensible answer. Any other answer is irrelevant and therefore inappropriate. But if we had a different primary concern, then this answer would likewise be inappropriate.

Why do I call it "Layers" though? This sounds more like what I frequently bring up with epistemic lenses and vantage points. Well, with epistemic lenses, the world is filtered through your axioms and your values. My talk of epistemic lenses has to do with the fact that all we have is perception, no direct apprehension of truth unfiltered, and the fact that the rules that we use to form beliefs are derived from our values. By Layers I mean we should see in all phenomenon multiple Layers at work.

I grow frustrated with my inability to think clearly. Let me give one more illustration.

Suppose a Gentile family gave birth to a boy who was switched with a boy born to a Jewish family at the hospital. The boy was raised by Gentiles lived like a Gentile: he ate pork, he kept his genitals intact, he referred to the first part of the Bible as 'old.' The boy raised by the Jewish family was raised as a Jew, culturally and religiously.

Was the boy raised by the Jewish family Jewish?
Layer 1 (all numbers assigned are arbitrary): No, he has no ethnic reason to be identified as Jewish.
Layer 2: Yes, he holds the propositions that we say constitute Judaism to be true statements.
Layer 3: Yes, he performs the rituals and actions that we say constitute Judaism.
Layer 4: No, he was not born of a Jewish mother.
Layer 5: Yes, he identifies himself as Jewish.
Layer 6: Yes, his behavior most closely resembles those that he grew up around, meaning that he behaves like his Jewish friends and would be grouped culturally with those Jewish friends.

Genetics, dogma, ritual, lineage, self-identity, cultural identity. They contain different answers to the question, and they are all true at the same time. All this is just to say, in some senses it is one way, in other senses it is another.

But this all leads me to a psychological statement. Even if someone has a vast vocabulary, they only say one word at a time. And even if someone has seen the world, they only have one visual field at any instant. That is, even if we exist in different places according to a multitude of different layers, maybe we only have one primary layer that we recognize at a time. We see the world according to one primary concern, perhaps.

If a man commits a crime and you ask him why he did it, he may tell you, and he may speak honestly. This still may not scratch the surface of the reason he did it. Maybe there was a long list of different Layers that he exists in, and in some layers it was rational to commit the crime and in other Layers it was irrational. When you ask him, he will describe the situation in terms of his preferred Layer. But there are, of course, other Layers and those other Layers had their say too.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Where It Lies

We must be able to see where a thing can actually lie, to know what we say can actually be modified by a predicate and what is only modified by a predicate as a kind of metaphor.

Suppose I said, "that is an angry mob." In a way I have spoken plainly. We understand what a mob is and we understand what it means when a mob is angry as opposed to, say, a rushing mob at Christmas time. In another way, though, I have actually used a metaphor. I have assigned an emotional state to a group of people, but there is nothing that it is like to be a group of people (if there is then it is an experience that is forever closed off to us because we only experience what it is like to be a person never any kind of aggregate consciousness). Only individual human beings experience the emotional state of anger, mobs do not experience anything they are just collections of human beings that do. In this sense, using the term "angry mob" is a metaphor.

We must be able to see where things actually lie to avoid falling into confusion. When we speak of aggregates having emotions we may be able to speak very usefully: companies lacking morale, countries in despair, families that are vengeful. We might say that we are speaking on a macro level for handling macro situations. But how does one improve a company's morale? Such a thing is not directly possible. You must improve the morale of the individual employees.

It appears to me that in statistics and sociology it is easy to forget that in a very real sense the whole enterprise is metaphor. You describe on a wide scale a story for a people group. But in the actual world there is not a wide story for a people group, there are stories for individual people and those stories happen to resemble each other.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

A Distinction of Note

Divide the joys of life into two camps: joys which are dependent upon the state of the world and joys which are only dependent upon one's own will.

The result of pursuing the first sort of joy is despair and frustration. That is not to say that there will not be happiness as well, but it will almost certainly be intermingled with life refusing to provide what it is that your will is demanding.

The result of pursuing the second sort of joy is numbness. One will be able to please oneself whenever it is wanted and consequently feelings will lose their dimension. Like soaking a canvas in blue or flooding a room with bright light: the details fade away and depth becomes impossible to perceive.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


Suppose we instead viewed all philosophy, all theory, all theology, and all metaphysics as being creative acts. Indeed in this age we already typically view theology as a creative act, and more and more philosophy and metaphysics seems relegated to that category, but theory endures. Suppose we added theory to the bin as well. Where would that leave humanity?

It would be a return to mythology. We would see a theory not as a potential explanation, but instead as a creative story that allows us to make sense of phenomena. But then, we could not really believe those myths, could we? How could one live in such a world? It seems as though there would be too much irony to even breathe. You would speak, but mutter under your breath, "not that any of this is true."

I suppose the question becomes: how could one live authentically in a world without truth in theory. What is the man prior to the word? What is there prior to the explanation?