Archive for category Philosophy
(This blog entry is a bit different – I’m in an introspective mood today)
We live in a world. Everything about our existence says that every effect has a cause, everything has a beginning, and you can’t get something from nothing.
So why does a world exist? Why is there something and not nothing?
It seems that there should be no world, no existence. The existence of a world requires a contradiction. Somehow something came from nothing. If you posit a beginning or a cause from something else, you just push back the problem. If one says “God created the world,” then the question becomes “why is there a God rather than no God?”
If one posits the big bang as creating space-time, the current popular theory, then what came before the Big Bang?
Therein lies a hint of an answer. If the big bang marks the creation point of space-time then whatever “caused” the big bang or “came before” it must be outside space-time. Yet we are fundamentally unable to even imagine a world that is not predicated on space-time. Our minds can only think in terms of a progression of events, one thing causing another, with time marching only forward, the present ceasing to exist as it continually becomes the past.
Our minds think of material cause and effect. That limitation is the main reason we cannot answer the question why is there something and not nothing. In our space-time frame of reference this is a paradox, a contradiction. Existence should not exist.
Contradictions are funny things. Aristotle says that two sides of a contradiction cannot both be true. A house cannot be both white and not white. But it’s not so clear cut. Reality isn’t the same as our linguistic symbolic representations of reality. We can create statements that contradict each other, but those statements may be poor reflections of reality. The fact light is both a particle and a wave — a contradictory state of affairs that is nonetheless apparently true — doesn’t really violate a law of contradictions. Our language constructs a contradiction because it imprecisely describes reality. We don’t really understand the nature of light – either the photons or the waves.
Thus it is very possible for two contradictory statements to be true.
So the contradiction behind the notion that a world exists is really a paradox. There may be an explanation, but it is outside our ability to comprehend – it is outside of space/time.
Is this an argument for the existence of God? Well, some conceptions of God claim that God is incomprehensible, and certainly whatever is outside space/time is by definition incomprehensible for us beings trapped in this space-time universe. However particular God-stories (various world religions) are of little help. If the concept of God is broadened to mean whatever force can explain the existence of this space-time universe and its attributes, then we have a form of Deism. But we know nothing about this God.
More convincingly is an argument in favor of some kind of non-material or “spiritual” aspect of existence. Since existence itself rests on the necessity of both sides of a contradiction being true, it’s clear that the material world itself is limited in scope. Any meaning or purpose this world has cannot be determined by looking at science or the material attributes of this world. That will give us knowledge on how we experience the functioning of this world, but not any meaning.
Of course, it’s possible the world is meaningless – that whatever created space-time was a kind of accident, and as soon as this universe runs its course it will collapse on itself and space-time will be “forgotten.” Yet that seems a dubious proposition to hold on purely pragmatic grounds. If the universe is meaningless and yet we search for meaning, we haven’t lost anything – in fact, we can create our own meaning for the brief dance we have on this planet. If there is a deeper meaning, then searching for it may connect us at least intuitively with a better understanding of why we have physical lives, and how we should best handle this experience.
Moreover, psychologically it’s very easy for us to become “hypnotized” by the world in which we find ourselves. Hypnosis operates on suggestions, and our world hurls suggestions at us all day, coming from our culture, media, friends, etc. We can lose ourselves in the routine doing what we think must be done, taking time for a distraction now and then, but not really making our lives something we consciously shape, reflect upon, and experience as truly meaningful.
To me, that would be boring – sort of like going through life half asleep.
So why is there something and not nothing? I don’t know. But contemplating the question gives me a stronger sense that I should reflect on what my experience here means, and look inside myself as well as out into the world.
The world is mostly nothing. And it came from nothing. If you consider the amount of “empty” space between the stars and galaxies, well over 99.999999999% of the universe has nothing. But if you also consider the stuff of every day — like this table my computer is resting upon — about 99.999999999% of it is empty space. It feels solid to us, but the reality is that the distance between the subatomic particles is immense, and thus the reality we see as solid and real is actually mostly empty.
Of course, this could mean that our perceptions are illusions. Consider: computer programs can create the illusion of vast worlds, all located on a tiny hard drive in the computer, used by an even smaller memory unit. It still is only two (or perhaps three) dimensional on a screen, but the ‘feel’ of being in a vast world exists. It’s not too much of a stretch to expand the metaphor to think of our reality.
That’s absurd, right? Space and time exist. But space and time are the same thing – it’s space/time. And it seems to be a unified entity, meaning all space/time exists together “simultaneously.” In other words, just as you can travel about in space, theoretically one could travel about in time; indeed to travel through space one must travel through time, they are unified. Yet for some reason we don’t comprehend, we’re temporally uni-directional. And it appears that while we can “speed up” our passage through time (if we traveled at near the speed of light we’d age much, much less quickly than those left on earth), we can’t go in reverse.
This is all very odd – and I’m not even going to delve into quantum and particle physics, except to note that they indicate that matter, or “stuff,” isn’t really a particle but a ripple in a field that has no precise location until it is measured or perceived. That means that we’ll always see the world as having a real discernible form because we’re perceiving it. If we ceased to perceive it, it would lose that form.
That makes no sense, and with all due to respect to Erwin Schroedinger, cats and other animals – and perhaps any form of life, including plants – perceive in some way. Which ones magically solidify reality into one form? Well, that’s anybody’s guess.
British clergyman Bishop Berkeley – who has both a university and a Star Trek character (spelled Barclay, the actual phonetic pronunciation of the Bishop’s name) named after him – thought material reality was simply a persuasive illusion. All we have is perception and experience, but we can never truly judge the reality of those perceptions. Dim witted people responded to Berkeley with things like “if reality is an illusion, why don’t you just jump off a cliff.” Of course, the perception of and experience of pain or even death would still be real. Whatever reality is.
Berkeley thought it was in essence God’s dream – we were products of God’s mind. And if we keep the metaphor of a dream going, it’s apt. Consider our dreams, especially dreams in which one knows he or she is dreaming. Those dreams have space, color, sensation, but yet we’re silently (or perhaps not so silently) snoozing in bed, creating those worlds in our minds. Perhaps waking reality is more like the dream world, but with different rules and laws. Why would such a view make any less sense than the idea something exploded from nothing and we inhabit a world where we drift quietly with no discernible purpose? Given our utter lack of knowledge about why there is something and not nothing, both possibilities are equally plausible.
Of course, a universe coming from “nothing” can also be seen as non-sensical. Before the big bang time and space presumably did not exist. The term “nothing” is a space-time term. The beginning of the universe is a space-time concept. Before space-time existed, time did not exist. Neither did space. Can you imagine a reality that is not defined by space or time?
We cannot conceptualize the reasons for our existence because they are completely outside our frame of reference. We think in space-time terms, but space-time is a creation. I’m not saying it was created by a God — and if one believes that, it just pushes back the core question to “where did God come from.” Moreover by definition God becomes non-material, with attributes not defined by space-time. Such a God would be utterly incomprehensible to humans, suggesting that our God-myths are just that – myths. Perhaps they came about because people were trying to put into words some kind of deep intuitive spiritual knowledge but then again, perhaps not.
We cannot imagine what is not space-time, so we are constrained by the limitations of our perceptual capacities. We think everything has a beginning and an end because we are unable to conceive of reality absent time. We think everything has a location because we cannot imagine reality without space.
But that says less about reality than our ability to understand it. So it seems we inhabit a world that given our understanding of the laws of physics, should not exist – because it requires getting something from nothing. Clearly our laws of physics themselves are not universal, at least not outside our space-time universe. That means we can be reasonably sure of a few things:
1. The belief we are in a meaningless universe of mechanical practices that follow the laws of physics without regard to anything immaterial (spirit, a god-concept or something like that) is unlikely to be correct. It relies on an assumption that this is “all that is,” but that requires a contradiction: our world came from nothing, but you can’t get something from nothing.
2. The idea that life is an illusion, a “dream of God” or some other fundamentally different nature is as realistic a belief as a belief that we experience an external world “out there” that we as discrete, separate individuals come in contact with. In fact, the odds are greater that Berkeley was on to something, given how bizarre quantum physics operates.
3. Science is defined by measurable material phenomena, and generalizes laws about the physical world – our space-time world. Therefore science cannot answer questions about a deeper fundamental nature of reality, or where this world came from. Thus science is pragmatic in the sense it tries to explain how the world works – or how we experience the world working. While it can inform philosophical and spiritual speculations, it cannot give definitive answers.
4. Neither philosophy nor spiritual/religious experience yields definitive answers to these questions either; to me that means one has to be playful, non-dogmatic and open minded.
In a famous feud, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the nature of God. Both were Deists. Deists didn’t doubt that there was a God. Following Newton, a “world in motion” had to have a first mover. Moreover, how could such an intricate and elaborate universe have come into being without a creator? Beyond that, though Deists had different views.
Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that God was a loving God, with nature being God’s true Bible, his message to humans. Rousseau was convinced that the worst mistake humanity ever made was to leave the state of nature and form communities, generating artificial “needs” and desires. He would no doubt be sickened by how humanity is now literally poisoning the planet and producing genetically altered plants and animals.
Voltaire (1694-1778), the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, did not share Rousseau’s optimistic view of God. On November 1, 1755 Lisbon Portugal had a massive earthquake. It was as strong as 9.0 on the Richter scale, destroyed 85% of Lisbon’s buildings and killed perhaps 50,000 of Lisbon’s 200,000 inhabitants. It inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop the concept of “the sublime.”
(At the same time the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was in labor – on November 2, 1755 she would give birth to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who would later be married off to the future king of France).
Voltaire, who already was suffering from personal tragedies, visited Lisbon and was sickened by what he saw. Utter destruction, massive death, and survivors in misery. Horrific suffering thanks to nature. How could this be the handiwork of a loving God? Why would God allow such misery to occur?
Rousseau offered an answer. Nature is God’s message, and God is love. So the problem must be humans. God clearly doesn’t want us congregated into huge crowded cities. People living on the country side could avoid the massive suffering caused by the earth quake. It was a message: cities are unnatural, if humans create them and natural disaster hits, blame people, not God.
This infuriated Voltaire. He had seen the suffering with his eyes and could not believe that Rousseau was blaming innocent victims for their peril. But Voltaire was not sure how to respond. Could God really be a horrific brute that reigned terror on humanity? But if God was loving, how could he allow such suffering?
He pondered Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) explanation for the existence of evil, that of all the possible worlds that could exist, this one was the “best possible.” Yes, bad stuff happens, but you could not have humans with free will without the potential of negative consequences. Thinking of the scenes from Lisbon, Voltaire wondered, “is this is the best of all possible worlds?”
So Voltaire did what most writers do when stymied, he wrote. And wrote. The product of his work was a book called Candide, or Candide or the Optimist. It is long, humorous, fast paced and satirical. Candide is studying with Pangloss, a teacher who follows Leibniz and Rousseau in saying that all works out for the best. Within the book they even visit the scene of the Lisbon earthquake. Candide asks if he should save a man who is drowning and Pangloss replies that he need not bother – if God wants him saved, he’ll be saved. (Pangloss in Latin means literally “all word”).
By the end of the book Candide rejects Pangloss’s argument that all turns out as it necessarily must, for the best. Instead, Candide says, “we must cultivate our own garden.”
That still inspires artists and thinkers to this day – click below to watch a video of Rush’s song “The Garden,” which lyricist Neil Peart said was inspired by Candide:
To be sure, there’s considerable debate over what exactly Voltaire meant. I read it to suggest that while there may have been a creator, it’s not at all clear that the creator cares about or even pays attention to his work. Perhaps God is out creating other worlds. In any event, God doesn’t need our love, other humans need our love. Rather than worshiping God or looking to him for salvation or support, we should be help each other.
Voltaire’s pragmatic argument was the beginning of what is now called “secular humanism.” It is humanist because humans are the center – we are to help others, improve the world and use reason to take responsibility for the world we construct. It is not the best of all possible worlds, but a world in need of improvement. It is secular because God is irrelevant. Praising God does nothing to help feed the poor or take care of those in need. Better to put our energy towards making the world we find ourselves in a better place.
Voltaire marked a move towards truly putting reason first for creating ethics. We are to use reason to figure out how to make the world better, improving conditions for humans. Given conditions in France at the time, Voltaire could correctly blame the Church and its traditions for a good portion of human suffering going on in cities like Paris – suffering that would ultimately lead the people to revolt.
Yet perhaps there is a middle ground. This may not be the “best of all possible worlds,” but that doesn’t mean that reason alone provides meaning. Reason only leads one to work to better humanity when you take as a goal a humanist belief that the well being of humans is the ultimate value. Yet reason does not give us proof for that value; reason can be used by fascists, Nazis, racists, nationalists and communists to justify their ideology. Reason is a tool, not a means to discover principles and value. Indeed after the French revolution people who thought they shared common principles turned into bitter enemies and society broke down.
It does not have to be religious belief nor a traditional concept of God (though it can be). But the fact we are alive in a world with no clear purpose or reason — the fact there is something rather than nothing — strongly indicates that we are only glimpsing part of reality, and not the part that tells us the “answers.” Modern physics in fact says light is both a particle and a wave, and particles are actually just ripples in fields and not actually “stuff.”
Atheists often say that only things with measurable material consequences are relevant for understanding our world. Yet that materialist view ignores the fact that perhaps the parts of reality we don’t experience in material terms do come through in our emotions, intuition, and inner sense. For lack of a better word we call that “spiritual,” and it runs the gamut from magic new age crystals to Buddhist meditation and both traditional religious and non-traditional beliefs. Perhaps we can use a “God concept” to explain whatever power gives substance to the universe.
That still doesn’t settle Rousseau and Voltaire’s dispute. Rousseau believed that civilization muted our natural compassion. Voltaire believed that civilization could be guided to better the human experience. Perhaps both were right in their own way. We must cultivate our own garden, but to do so we need to look both to nature and that voice inside, a voice that may have its origin outside the material reality we can perceive. God? Spirit? Does it really matter?
One of the main problems in the world now, especially the industrialized West, is our reliance on isolated intellectualism. Our intellects are trapped in a world that appears chaotic, dangerous, and unpredictable. The world moves only from past to future, with no way to predict for certain what will come next. We can imagine horrible consequences of global warming, genetically altered food, Islamic extremism, and economic collapse. The world appears on the brink of something disastrous.
Some people grab that with relish. You know the type – they forecast ‘collapse, downfall, ‘endarkenment’ and other calamitous futures. Sometimes they imagine themselves to be like Cassandra, seeing clearly the future that others miss. More often it’s simply a kind of voyeuristic rush – it’s exciting to imagine disaster. Think of all the disaster movies that have hit the big screen since Irwin Allen’s “Poseidon Adventure” proved such a hit in 1972.
Others find ideological or religious faith – their “ism” tells them the truth of the world, and they divide the world up into those who are right (share their belief) and those who are wrong, often believing the wrong folk to be inferior humans. In other words, ideologues are like religious extremists – they need to think they have the truth, and they are psychologically driven to see others as wrong or inferior.
I think all of these taken to an extreme reflect a trapped or imbalanced mind. Isolating the mind from intuition, emotion, and spirit leads to a cold, harsh view of reality. Idealists can quickly become disillusioned cynics if they don’t temper their ideals with pragmatism, and a recognition that the intellect, logic and reason cannot explain all of human experience.
If the intellect meshes with emotion – with intuition, faith, and spirit – there can be a very satisfying balance. Consider the following propositions:
1. Our world had a beginning. Due to the nature of space-time, it is inconceivable that we could be in the present if there were an infinite past. The laws of physics, however, indicate that you cannot create something from nothing, meaning our universe could not have been created. (One caveat – in quantum mechanics its possible to ‘borrow’ energy from the universe to create something apparently from nothing. However, in quantum physics the universe is permeated with ‘probable energy.’ So it’s not really something from nothing.)
2. The laws of physics governing this particular universe were created at the time our universe was. If according to the laws of physics our world could not have been created, but if it must have had a creation point (not convinced – here’s an article from this month’s Discover on this), then the laws of physics were also created. To be sure, there is likely a larger set of “laws” of the universe that we cannot comprehend that go beyond our space/time physics. Yet clearly something about reality outside our universe (that is, outside our realm of space-time, created about 15 billion years ago) that does not have to conform to what we consider the “laws of nature.”
3. Spiritualism is not supernatural, but a different theory about the laws of nature. This is in line with especially Buddhist thought (though I am not a Buddhist). The argument here is that the usual claims by religion that something “outside the world” – a God or series of Gods – created and maintains our reality are misguided. Rather, our reality may have its origins (and perhaps is maintained) by something that does not conform the the known laws of our physical universe, but reflects a deeper reality.
I submit that this proposition is very strongly supported by quantum mechanics. While the mechanistic building block view of reality put forth in Newtonian physics has already been destroyed, the philosophical implications of this move are still under hefty debate. Yet quantum mechanics, full of paradoxes and weirdness, suggests that the true laws of nature are far more complex and strange than the Newtonian notions we entertain.
Some who want to hold on to a very clear and straightforward mechanistic view of the world insist that quantum mechanics must be wrong at some level because the paradoxes often lead to clear contradiction. They claim that the law of contradiction indicates that the claims of quantum physics can’t be true – two contradictory things cannot both be right. However, it could be that we see the claims as contradictory because we do not understand reality. The contradictions may be linguistic constructions.
4. The key to liberating ones’ intellect is not to fear the spiritual/intuitive side of life, even if the nature of reality, as we now understand it, prevents us from ever being sure if a belief is right. Freedom requires an embrace of uncertainty, and a recognition that there isn’t an answer card to tell us exactly what this life is about. That means rejecting dogmatism and accepting that there are multiple perspectives about the world, and we learn more by exploring each, rather than grabbing and holding on to one, and trying to prove the others wrong.
Ironically, by rejecting intuition, emotion, sentiment and spirituality, we cage the intellect into a cold mechanistic world devoid of meaning. That breeds cynicism and undermines empathy. By freeing the intellect we give up on the hope to have “the right answer” and replace it with gaining insight and understanding. After all, if uncertainty is unavoidable, then we can freely and with a spirit of joy make our best calls about life, recognizing its OK to be wrong!
Rush – Geddy Lee (Gary Lee Weinrib), Alex Lifeson (Alex Zivojinovich) and Neil Peart have been together as Rush for four decades. During that time they have released 19 studio albums, the latest being Clockwork Angels. To be blunt: it is a stunningly poignant, powerful and entrancing album.
For their first album in five years the trio go back to the prog rock standard of having not just a concept album, but an album that tells a story. Rush did that in the seventies, but after Hemispheres came out in 1978 they rejected long stories and overt concept albums. Clockwork Angels is a story told by an older man looking back at life in a dystopian steampunk world.
For Peart – the lyricist and story teller, the album is personal and reflects a kind of bookend to the 1976 classic 2112. In that album a young man confronts a world of conformity and control, and finds power in music to rebel and express his individual freedom. 2112 is a young man’s story, inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, brimming with optimism about one’s ability to go out and create one’s life, taking control and expressing the ideal of freedom.
Peart, who calls himself a “bleeding heart libertarian” has backed off from his embrace of Rand, and this album helps explain why. It is the album of a man nearing sixty who looks back at a life with moments of both glory and tragedy. Peart himself lost his daughter in a car accident and his wife to breast cancer within a year. He’s traveled the globe and had success doing what he loves – drumming and creating lyrical magic for a band that has stuck together through thick and thin. But he’s experienced lows, saw the pain this world can create, and realizes that reality betrays his ideals. Yet he still is an idealist.
One inspiration for the album was Voltaire’s classic Candide, mentioned overtly in the album notes introducing the last song – The Garden. Candide was Voltaire’s response to Rousseau’s belief that nature was good and any evil and pain humans experiences is due to our choices in constructing civilization contrary to nature. Voltaire visited Lisbon after the famous 1755 earthquake and saw the horror there — and was stunned to hear that Rousseau blamed the victims for defying nature and building a massive city vulnerable to such tragedy. He wrote Candide as a response to Rousseau, having the hero travel the world with his mentor Pangloss, who claimed that all happens because it should.
While not mirroring in structure or content Voltaire’s work, the hero in Clockwork Angels is on a similar journey. In BU2B he writes:
‘I was brought up to believe the universe has a plan
We are only human, it’s not ours to understand
The universe has a plan, all is for the best
Some will be rewarded and the devil will take the rest
All is for the best, believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker loves us all to death”
The capital of this steampunk world is Crown City, where the angels of Chronos Square help the Watchmaker keep order. Life is secure, but boring. As a young man our hero yearns for something more: “I can’t stop thinking big!” He escapes a life of order and obedience, working at first for a carnival. The songs take us through some of the hero’s journey such as The Wreckers where he emerges from a shipwreck as the sole survivor and Halo Effect reflecting on how easy it is in love to fall for illusions:
“What did I see?
Fool that I was
A goddess, with wings on her heels
All my illusions
Projected on her
The Ideal that I wanted to see”
As the album nears an end the hero comes to conclusions similar to those of Voltaire’s Candide. In Headlong Flight (a song with vintage Rush stylings) he reflects on “all the journeys of this great adventure.” His “headlong flight” is life, with high peaks and dark valleys, a journey different than expected but with no regrets: “I wish that I could live it all again.”
That is followed by BU2B2:
“Belief has failed me now, life goes from bad to worse
No philosophy consoles me in a clockwork universe
Life goes from bad to worse, I still choose to live
Find a measure of love and laughter and another measure to give”
He reaches a profound conclusion in that passage – in a clockwork universe there can be no satisfying philosophical answer to life’s mysteries. You can have faith in the Watchmaker (e.g., God), but reality makes such faith hard if not impossible to hold. So he turns to choosing life – a measure of love and laughter.
The penultimate song, Wish them Well adds:
“All you can do is wish them well
Spirits turned bitter by the poison of envy
Always angry and dissatisfied
Even the lost ones, the frightened and mean ones
Even the ones with a devil inside
Thank your stars you’re not that way, turn your back and walk away…”
He’s also found there is no point in dwelling on the weaknesses of others, even those who’ve cheated him or caused pain. They are the ones with the sickness in their souls, all you can do is “wish them well.” The hero realizes that dwelling on the misdeeds and betrayals of others only gives them power over his own thoughts and mood. He will not be diminished by the smallness of others. Rather than seeking revenge, wish them well.
The album notes for the last song, The Garden, cites Candide, a story from “another timeline.” Candide experienced adventure and tragedy while being constantly told by his teacher Pangloss that all that happens is the will of God. At the end Candide concludes that “now it is time to cultivate our own garden,” choosing a simple life in the countryside. Peart’s conclusion is similar:
“The treasure of a life is a measure of the love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give in the fullness of time
it’s the only return that you expect
The future disappears into memory
with only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen.”
Candide is often considered the first full modern expression of humanism. God may exist, but he doesn’t need our love and efforts – we humans need them. We need to love ourselves and each other. The humanist ethic emerges when idealism battles cynicism. Idealism wins, but at a price. Instead of faith in an omnipotent loving God and a future of paradise, one only has life and the moments as they arise. Living each moment well has/is its own reward.
“The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect.”
A few things stand out about the album. First, these guys are no slouches. The album took work, they explored new musical territory while not letting go of their signature sound. I’m not qualified to write a musical review, but most music critics are amazed that these musicians are not only still producing quality work, but taking great pride in trying to always produce their best album ever. That work ethic is why they can still produce a masterpiece when others from their era are either retired or rehashing old music in arenas, often two or three of the old superstar bands teamed together.
Beyond that, a look at Rush through time shows a band that constantly grows and evolves, both musically and lyrically. They never try to be commercial (only Tom Sawyer was a real hit), and until their last two albums have tended to be dismissed by music critics who took a snobbish view on the entire prog rock movement — the two coasts sneering at the Midwest and Canadian hard rock sound. Now, though, even the critics have come around. Perhaps Rush will finally get a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This is not an album they could have made back in the 70s. It reflects the wisdom of thoughtful years through Peart’s lyrics, the meshing and development of a variety of sounds through Lee and Lifeson’s compositions, a seriously evolving style of drumming from Peart, and a commitment by the band to excellence and to each other. Their success now is a vindication of the band and people like me — fans who have always seen something special in their words and music. Just as the youthful rebellious individualism and hard rock power in 2112 inspired me at age 16, the reflective wisdom and tight musical complexity of Clockwork Angels moves me at age 52.
Here’s a drum solo from Peart from a 2011 appearance on Letterman:
(Note, this is part 8 of a series called “Quantum Life,” in which I post the contents of a strange ‘guide book’ I found for a game called “Quantum Life.” It is in English, which the book calls a “Quantum Life language,” unable to capture all thecomplexities of the world as it really is. I’m not sure where this book came from). If this reads very strange to those following my blog, click the link above and look at the basic premise of this series and earlier entries. Picking up where I left off, the next section is “Purpose and Meaning”:
PURPOSE AND MEANING
After childhood the player enters what is known in quantum life reality as adulthood. However, that is simply a term that reflects the physical development of the player in the quantum life world. In reality childhood is designed to prepare the player for challenges to be faced throughout the rest of any round of play (life). The most important component is purpose. Every quantum life player has a purpose. Many fulfill their purpose in childhood and their round ends. Most experienced players, however, have a variety of challenges beyond childhood.
Purpose is a hard term to define using a quantum life language like English. In essence it is the core reason for this round of play — a goal, a particular challenge or lesson the player wants to internalize so that it is carried over to future rounds of play. It gets associated with meaning in that a player is more attuned to their purpose when they experience life as meaningful. The two are linked in a very powerful way. Ideally the quest for meaning in life (or the sense of engaging in something meaningful) should keep people focused on their purpose.
That formula — using the measure of meaningfulness in life to tell if one is fulfilling ones’ purpose — sounds easy, and care is taken between rounds of play to try to make meaning as clear as possible. However, within the game itself there are a myriad of factors that either hide meaning for create a false sense of meaning, often completely misleading the player.
Two main obstacles emerge that can prevent a player from recognizing his or her true purpose. Inexperienced players often succumb to these obstacles despite care being taken between rounds to prepare them. The obstacles are culture and fear.
Culture refers to the set of meanings dominant in a round of play. (Note: here meaning simply refers to a shared understanding about a concept or idea – in quantum life languages words confusingly have multiple meanings!) Each player is “born into” a cultural world with customs, traditions and shared understandings that they are socialized to accept. These “cultures” vary vastly over time and place, and reflect the choices made by players. As such, culture is a product of the game which often has little connection with true reality.
One challenge for players is to become critical of how culture might prevent them from achieving their life purpose. Cultures can define groups of players as inferior, certain practices as morally right or wrong, and certain goals as acceptable and unacceptable. In some cases a player’s purpose requires opposition to the existing culture. That is a challenge often embraced by advanced players.
It’s hard to overstate the ease in which players can lose sight of their purpose and fall into the trap of being hypnotized by the culture world in which they find themselves. They may realize that “something is wrong” inside, or that their life is unfulfilling and lacks meaning, but their response can be to more tightly embrace the culture, hoping that conformity to the norms of the game will bring satisfaction. While numerous lessons and experiences can still be gleaned from such rounds of play, the true purpose of that round becomes hidden and the round is ultimately unsuccessful.
Another obstacle, one that often is connected to culture, is fear. As noted earliler in this guidebook, the core cause of fear is uncertainty. Players enter this world from a world where the connection of all with all is understood and embraced. Pure certainty of meaning is a key aspect of existence in the real world (again, these concepts are hard to convey in a quantum life language). In the game there is a sense of being alone and uncertain.
As an obstacle to be overcome, fear is first dealt with by living as an instinctive creature (an animal) or a human player in physical danger. Fear becomes a response to threats to survival in the world, and as such players learn to see it as a positive force, giving them strength and awareness when necessary. However, it takes practice to take that lesson and use it when fear is a response to uncertainty in the game, especially when a player doubts his or her own worth and meaning.
Rather than using fear as a source of strength players might submit more fully to the culture in which they find themselves. Cultural beliefs often seem to comfort uncertainty by positing a person as superior to other players (e.g., a superior gender, race, ethnic group or class). This can create an illusion of security but the disconnect between the player and his or her purpose generates deep discontent and dissatisfaction.
The result is a destructive downward spiral as players try ever harder to prove their own worth and value in the game-world, and increasingly find it unfulfilling as it is ever farther from their true purpose. Such actions can reinforce cultural norms that create obstacles for other players. This makes for some of the most difficult life lessons and experiences – a player may believe he or she is totally prepared for a meaningful round of play and then emerge having “wasted” a life on material pursuits or efforts to gain power over others.
These obstacles, however, are essential to the game. Overcoming fear and culture requires self-mastery. A player must be confident enough to reject conformity as a moral good, with no need to prove self-worth through comparison to or dominance over others. That is why the game is so popular — players learn to develop the certainty inherent in real world existence even without the ubiquitous real world connections. It is, however, a much more difficult task than most people realize.
(All for today – I’ll continue to transcribe this guidebook in future blog posts!)
Today is Easter, a day Christians celebrate due to their belief that a Jewish spiritual teacher named Jesus was actually the son of God, was crucified and rose from the dead, thereby granting Christians a promise of eternal life.
While I am not a Christian (I do not subscribe to any organized religion, though I try to show all of them respect), the emphasis Christians put on forgiveness is very powerful. If people could learn to actively forgive the world would be a much better place. If you want happiness in life a good first step is to embrace the principle of forgiveness.
Forgiveness comes on many levels. The first is to forgive others for causing us harm. That’s the kind of forgiveness most of us think of first. Some people have trouble with that. When they’ve been wronged they hold resentments, or believe that the other person has to make some gesture of attrition or regret before they can forgive. Moreover, in most disputes both sides interpret themselves to have been wronged more than the other, so with each waiting for the other to show regret and remorse, nobody gets forgiven.
The secret is to let go and forgive anyway. If one takes the first step and reaches out the other person is more likely to respond and return the gesture. In some cases the other person can’t let go of resentment. There forgiveness is powerful in that it frees one from the emotions of the conflict. If the other person wants to wallow in anger and resentment, that’s his or her problem. That’s the power of forgiveness. Once you forgive you cease to allow others to have power over your emotional state.
How often do we spend time frustrated, angry and upset about things others have done? People can give up hours of time each day to feelings of anger and resentment. Yet what is gained? That simply gives others power over our state of mind and turns what could have been a productive and contented day into one of frustration and irritation. Forgiveness allows us to deny others that power. We can let go of anger and resentment and engage in positive pursuits. Simply, forgiving others, even those who don’t deserve forgiveness, is in our own self-interest.
The second type of forgiveness is to forgive mistakes. When someone unintentionally does something wrong or does harm the natural inclination is to be upset. “He should have known better,” or “if she’s holding a cup of hot coffee she should make sure it doesn’t spill.” Yet if it’s a mistake, even a stupid one that should have been avoided, there is absolutely no reason to be angry. If something is unintentional, then anger is misplaced. Forgive mistakes.
To be sure, if you’re a boss you may have to fire or discipline an employee who makes too many mistakes. Forgiveness is a personal act, it doesn’t mean erasing proper consequences for mistakes. I can forgive a student for not studying before an exam and not think less of the student as a person, but the student still gets the grade he or she earns.
Most importantly, one has to forgive oneself for mistakes, misjudgments, and misdeeds. This is the perhaps the hardest form of forgiveness for people to learn. People beat themselves up over things that they did or did not do, and cannot let go and focus on the future.
Mistakes, though, are the way people learn. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities, and see repeated mistakes as a sign of what to focus on improving. One also has to forgive oneself for engaging in malicious misdeeds done out of anger and spite. I believe it’s only possible to accept the forgiveness of others if one has forgiven oneself. That is the first step. Moreover, most people rationalize misdeeds if they cannot forgive themselves for them. The inability to forgive oneself leads to people feeling victimized and justified in doing whatever they do. They don’t see that they are drawing such “persecution” onto themselves by their own unresolved inner conflicts. Self-forgiveness is essential for happiness.
Some people treat forgiveness as some kind of difficult and hard to achieve ideal. How often have you heard people say they want to forgive but can’t let go of a resentment or of anger? How many people refuse to forgive until the other person makes amends? How any people engage in self-loathing rather than self-forgiveness?
Yet it is easy. To forgive one simply has to let go of the past, recognizing that since the past cannot be changed, dwelling on it serves no useful purpose. Learn from it, but don’t let it add emotional weight to your life burden. Forgiveness is an embrace of the present and acceptance of the past. The past cannot be changed, the present is our point of power to make change. We tie ourselves down and waste energy if our emotions are fixated on the past — we become unable to use our present power to improve ourselves and the world.
Forgiveness is one of the most powerful acts a person can engage in. So while I don’t believe the theology and story line of the Christian faith, I celebrate their emphasis on forgiveness as the core of Jesus’ teachings. To me Easter is a reminder of the power and good that forgiveness brings.
Don Henley’s Heart of the Matter has always been one of my favorites. I especially like the lines
“These times are so uncertain, there’s a yearning undefined, and people filled with rage.
We all need a little tenderness, how can love survive in such a graceless age
Ah, trust and self-assurance that lead to happiness
They’re the very things we kill I guess
There are people in your life who’ve come and gone, they’ve let you done, you know they’ve hurt your pride
You gotta put it all behind you because life goes on, you keep carrying that anger it will eat you up inside
Been trying to get down to the heart of the matter, but my will gets week and my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness…”
Tuesday I was driving back from Portland to Farmington. I was nearing Augusta thinking about where I’d pick up a bite to eat, as well as getting equipment for my just turned nine year old son to start a video editing hobby. It crossed my mind that interstates are dangerous places, it’s always possible that an unexpected turn of events could lead to an accident. My last thoughts of this life could be about how I was feeling hungry!
This wasn’t a disturbing or ghoulish thought. Death is an integral and necessary part of life. I think to really embrace life and be content one has to first overcome the fear of death. There is one fundamental reason people fear death – they believe that this reality and life experience is the only thing of value, and that once it’s gone one suffers extreme loss. If one believes that, then the events of the world are of monumental importance, they are the essence of life’s meaning.
Such a view shifts focus from looking inside to looking at the world for validation, approval and self-worth. The world is really bad at providing those things. Career only provides temporary validation — there’s always one more step to take up the latter. Advertising and movies have created unrealistic ideals of beauty, family life and success. The world is more likely to make people feel worse about themselves, focusing on what they lack, where they fall short, and what’s missing from life. Others might fixate on sports, politics, fashion or something to stay distracted. Fear of death increases dissatisfaction with life.
I was simply curious. So I decided to open up my mind and just say whatever words popped out. “What does one feel upon death,” I asked? Then I said the word “accomplishment.” I said it without thinking and puzzled. Accomplishment? “But not every life is an accomplishment is it?”
I then answered myself, “Of course it is. Life itself is just an experience. It is an exploration of the nature of existence. The universe is unified, everything is connected. Lives provides information and understanding. A life as a drug addict murderer accomplishes as much as a life as a Nobel scientist because it explores how it is that context and personality lead to those sorts of experiences. The individual is a conduit of information.”
I then pondered the words that had just come out of my mouth and continued to talk out loud. “The individual is an experience point, but I and the world in which I inhabit are part of a unified reality, and life is a way to experience how that reality works. A person who experiences a very horrific existence may in fact accomplish more than a person who has an easy existence…
“No…every life is an equal accomplishment. It is part of the tapestry, it is part of some kind of universal self-learning/awareness…”
I paused. “OK, what does that mean? Does it mean nihilism, anything goes since all life is accomplishment? No, because that kind of attitude is only possible when you separate context from individual experience. Whether or not you say ‘anything goes’ depends not just on you as a discrete individual, but the way the context of your life experience shapes how you understand and interpret your reality. The discrete individual does not make choices outside of a context, who we are is very much determined by our place in the universe, we are not disconnected entities navigating a world separate from ourselves.
“Maybe life is being a part of everything. Maybe what’s inside reflects all of what’s outside and vice-versa. Maybe different people living different lives are not truly ‘someone else’ but a part of me experiencing the world from a different perspective.”
At that point I had to exit the interstate so I stopped talking and shifted my focus to driving my car and avoiding a life ending accident! I got a personal pizza at the Pizza Hut in Target, and then bought a Sony camcorder and video editing software at Best Buy. As the sun was setting I headed up towards Farmington, enjoying an absolutely beautiful evening. Even though my mind went elsewhere after that, the world seemed a tad more magical than it had before.
William James gave shape to a philosophy that would be known as pragmatism, a kind of “grown up” version of Nietzsche’s perspectivism. At base pragmatism recognizes that truth claims are human constructs, tools that we use to manipulate and navigate our world.
This rejects the idea that truth is somehow a copy of reality — that we can have a proposition or claim that mirrors the way the world is. The world is not language. Language is a human construct designed to allow us to interpret sensation and experience. We communicate our experience through language, meaning that linguistic claims reflect the brain’s effort to impose order and understanding on the world we experience.
Linguistic claims therefore cannot be said to able to convey any kind of absolute truth. Some contain definitional truths — 5 is defined as a numeric quantity that comes from adding, say 4 plus 1. We have constructed a useful truth claim that works. The weirdness of quantum mechanics is often denied by those who do not want the kind of bizarre paradoxical reality that the theory implies – some want to believe in a clear mechanical like order. But it works — and so it is accepted as truth.
When one moves away from linguistic definitional constructs to efforts to understand whether humans have free will, is there a God, is a materialist or spiritual understanding of reality correct, or what principles should guide us, we lack the linguistic clarity of mathematical definitions. Instead multiple competing discursive interpretations of reality can be constructed, many internally consistent and able to explain reality, but in contradiction with one another.
For James this was not a weakness of philosophy any more than the protestant reformation was a weakness of religion. Rather it was a humanistic liberation from philosophical absolutism. Just as the Roman Catholic church once claimed that religion could only be received through the Church, traditional philosophy looked to find one absolute truth that all should follow. Just as the reformation created the idea that the individual could have his or her own interpretation of scripture and relationship with God, pragmatism liberates individuals to determine their own approach to philosophy and truth.
For James this was good because he believed that your philosophical predilection was based less on how you rationally analyzed arguments and came to conclusions and more on temperament. “Tender minded” types tended to idealism and rationalism, trying to find principles that yield the one true philosophical system. Moralistic, idealistic and often unyielding, this often created an opening for spiritual and optimistic views on life and nature. Their views might not correspond to reality as they experience it now, but these people believe there is a deeper truth. Tender minded folk can take solace in that, and the fact they do understand truth, even if the world does not.
Tough minded people, on the other hand, tended towards realism, cynicism, skepticism and materialism. This yields a secular, empiricist world view, but one often cold, devoid of hope and pessimistic about the human condition. Both world views can be held, and each can interpret reality consistently and logically – yet each yields a very different view on life. Tender minded types build systems which seem to operate on logical core principles, tough minded folk are positivists and pluralists who question the very existence of core principles or the applicability of theoretical systems.
Pragmatism in that sense tells people that rather than try to figure out what is right (since that answer will come more from your personality than anything about reality), understand what truth claims mean for you and then choose those which work best for you and your experience in the world. This does not mean “work best” in terms of getting what’s best for ones’ self at the expense of others. This means what “works best” in terms of value fulfillment — what kind of beliefs will yield a life that is more full and meaningful for each individual? Pragmatism is not simply an amoral approach to achieving ones’ desires.
James also focused on the mass public rather than specialized circles of philosophers. Specialized philosophers are just people who are very good at developing linguistic defenses of their particular take on reality, debating with others about which take is “right.” Not much is gained by the linguistic sophistication and logical complexity, except that the experts can feel superior with their own specialized jargon. That’s not useful philosophy, that’s just playing intellectual games. Useful philosophy must be accessible to any educated person, meaning James’ books and lectures were far more interesting and popular than those of the “professional” philosophers.
For James different beliefs mean different things. If you believe in a spiritual approach to reality there is hope — there is meaning beyond the material. For a materialist there is hopelessness — no matter what one achieves all will be demolished someday, the sun will explode all we know will be forgotten. There is at base an essential meaninglessness to existence. If you believe in free will there is a chance to improve the world; if you are a determinist all is as it must be, also a kind of hopelessness.
All these beliefs are possible — you can interpret reality to fit any of them. Which you choose leads to certain conclusions. Choose that which fits your temperament and intuition. Go with it. But don’t expect others to share the same view.
The pragmatist at base is about liberty — we are all free to choose how to look at reality and how to understand it. There is no “right” answer that we should have. That would be a kind of totalitarianism. Those who think they have the “true” ideology will usually think that all should act in accord to what they see as the “truth.” These are the equivalent of intellectual despots. They think they have the right answer and condemn those who don’t think properly. Since humans are fallible and the idea that one fallible human has somehow come up with the absolute truth is the height of arrogance and irrationality; a philosophical absolutist is a kind of intellectual Stalinist. You can have your truth, but don’t pretend that it should be my truth.
Which means that the fundamental principles behind pragmatism are liberty and tolerance. If there is no absolute truth — if truth is just a human constructed tool to use in the world — then dogmatism and intolerance are wrong. They are wrong because they don’t work, they impede value fulfillment and the ability of people to make free choices about what to believe and how to act in the world. Truth claims are all simply interpretations of reality, human linguistic constructs that can’t be measured against the world to see if they are ‘accurate.’ The world is not a linguistic construct. Constructs are things we create, and are necessarily subjective and interpretivistic. They are tools which can be judged only by how they work for each individual, how they allow value fulfillment and the ability to make sense of the world.
The claim that this necessitates tolerance and liberty is therefore not a claim of absolute truth, but a proposition based on the belief that dogmatism and absolutism are not only indefensible (no philosophy can prove itself true, since its truth is based on contingent definitions and assumptions), but yield a result that doesn’t work – it prevents value fulfillment and individual liberty. The truth of this claim is not one that is asserted as a logical and necessarily truth, but has to be championed as a political and chosen truth: seeing the world this way is preferable to people than looking for some sort of “answer key.” It is a normative belief that liberty trumps dogmatism and orthodoxy.
So pragmatism is, at base, the actualization of the principles of liberty and tolerance. It is the quintessential American philosophy, justifying our belief in democracy and pluralism, similar to Nietzsche’s perspectivism, but more optimistic and positive. It appears relativistic, but rests on a key insight: embracing subjectivity is to embrace freedom, to strive for objective truth is to risk tyranny.
Jeremy Bentham, the rationalist British utilitarian philosopher, scoffed at the notion of natural rights. “Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense, nonsense on stilts.”
He has a point. People like to posit “ought” statements as having some kind of ontological status beyond that which ones’ own biases and beliefs provide. To say “you shouldn’t kill because I think killing is bad and a lot of others agree with me and will punish you” is less persuasive than “you shouldn’t kill because nature (or God) says its wrong.”
Nature says no such thing. Nature does not care a wit if you kill, steal, lie, cheat, or jump to your death from a high cliff. Humans are born into the world with one “natural right” only: you are free to do whatever you want to do, limited only by your capacity to act (abilities and constraints) and the consequences of your action. Everything else is fine with nature.
Rights like “life, liberty and property” are things we humans construct for various reasons. For John Locke it was to give the rising middle class a way to challenge the aristocracy and set limits on government. For libertarians it’s a convenient way to rationalize views on politics skeptical of government. But make no mistake – those rights don’t exist in nature.
They can’t. They are based on human concepts and definitions, all of which are constrained by context and linguistic sloppiness. Context means simply that the same ‘concept’ has different meanings depending on what the situation is. One might posit a nice rational focused definition of theft: taking from someone something that belongs to that other person. But whether you’re stealing from a man who otherwise doesn’t have enough to feed his family or taking food from a rich Nazi to save a Jews’ life changes the essential nature of the act.
This leads to the first “bullshit” aspect of claims of natural rights – the idea one can define a right abstractly and ignore how context shifts the essential meaning of and nature of any act.
Now, I don’t swear much – either in print or in speech – so let me define bullshit here. Bullshit is an absurd and arbitrary claim that rests on fancy sounding rationalizations and justifications put forth sometimes with righteous indignation. You can usually tell “bullshit” arguments by how they are defended. For instance, deny natural rights and many will respond in an appeal to emotion, or appeal to public opinion: “Oh, really, you say you don’t have a natural right to your property — if someone comes and tries to take it, will you just say ‘oh, I have no right, so you can take it.”
Such an illogical argument is absurd on its face — just because a right isn’t natural doesn’t mean I won’t assert my own claims and defend them. I just don’t appeal to some kind of mystical natural justification. I won’t defend my property because of some natural right, I’ll defend it because I’m not going to let people take my stuff! I don’t need any fancy justification for that. Moreover, saying there is no natural right to “life” does not mean one thinks murder is OK. It just means we see those “rights” as humanly constructed, and often for good reason. The ‘argumentum ad populum” bit seems persausive because that’s the reason we constructed those rights — most of us think they should exist. Whether nature provides them is irrelevant.
The most common bullshit way to try to argue against context is the use of a vague definitional justifier. “You shouldn’t take life unjustly.” ‘Unjustly’ is a magic word here, meaning ‘anything contextual that I arbitrarily define as just killing can be dismissed.” Unjustly can be defined by other similar abstract efforts to delimit a term, creating confusing complexity that hides the underlying bullshit upon which such an argument stands. Words like ‘valid, just, legitimate, etc.’ are like big neon signs saying “bullshit alert!” It’s all fancy ways people try to make it sound like their opinions represent not just their own particular take on reality, but some deeper truth that they have uncovered thanks to their superior intellect and moral integrity.
This is not to say that John Locke is completely wrong (though his view on epistemology has also been brushed aside into the ash heep of history). Rather, he just had too much residual scholasticism in his way of thinking. Instead of debating how many crystal spheres make up the heavens, now there is an effort to trace human rights – or ‘ought’ statements – to the nature of reality — or for Locke the nature of British reality in the 1600s.
The point is not that the rights posited as natural are to be ignored or thrown out — on the contrary, I believe most of them should be put forth as rights to be defended and protected at all costs! Not because we have discovered them in nature but because as thinking humans we have decided we believe putting forth those rights is good for society and reflects what we value. And if lots of other people value them, then all the better. They don’t need to be from nature, being from humans is good enough.
The problem with the “from nature” argument is that people with different views try to use that as a way to dismiss all other perspectives and rationalize not doing the hard work of actually making arguments and defending their beliefs. “It’s nature, yada yada yada,” hands over the ears.
The other problem is that we shouldn’t see it as a cheapening of rights to take credit for them as human constructs. Heck, we’ve constructed all sorts of things, nature didn’t give me this computer or a Boeing 747. We built them, using the raw materials of nature. Using the raw materials of human existence in a social context we’ve constructed systems of rights. Let’s be proud of them as our creation, not some kind of gift from nature! This also makes it easier to deal with context, we’re not trying to impose as perfectly as possible an abstract rational dogmatic ideology — we’re deciding how we want our world to operate. We can choose the terms, limits and contextual impact.
Those who point to nature as the source often claim they support liberty, but what can be more limiting of human freedom than to say we’re not free to construct our own systems of rights? Why should I slavishly devote myself to some set of rights “from nature” rather than use my imagination to develop what I think should be considered rights, and then work with others to persuade them and actualize those rights? The only reason anybody would want to limit that freedom is authoritarian- they want to impose their view of rights on everyone. The imposition may be intellectual rather than political, but such dogmatism is inherently anti-intellectual.
So do we have rights to life, liberty, property and a host of other human rights that most of us view fundamental? To the extent we’ve built political systems to protect these rights we have them; to the extent we believe those rights should exist we are free to act politically to build them!