Tag Archives: Philosophy

The Meaning of Life

Well said again, Mr. David P. Goldman

Woody Allen had it down pat in “Antz” (An ant on a couch tells an ant psychiatirst, “I feel so insignificant!,” to which the ant psychiatrist replies, “That’s a breakthrough. You are insignificant.” I’m not out to proselytize, but the choice is digital: either the Maker of Heaven loves you, which makes you significant, or the idea of a Creator God is as of the same ilk as Richard Dawkins’ Flying Spaghetti Monster, in which case you are insignificant. In the latter case, get over it.

He talks about Heidegger, Faust, philosophy, and of course the meaning of life.

 

Eliot and Moral Decay

Where to lay the blame for moral decay? Over at Penllyn Studio there is an excellent article, Fidelity and the Cultural Shift, but I wanted to disagree a bit on the location of the blame 🙂  Whenever people have desired to have consequence free sex, they have found a way. And (at least according to my new favorite exposition on culture: How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too)) People desire to have sex and no kids when their culture has arrived at despair. This feeling is really evinced in T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Here is a portion: (long portion… but worth reading and thinking about.)

II. A Game of Chess

The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne, 77
Glowed on the marble, where the glass
Held up by standards wrought with fruited vines
From which a golden Cupidon peeped out
(Another hid his eyes behind his wing)
Doubled the flames of sevenbranched candelabra
Reflecting light upon the table as
The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it,
From satin cases poured in rich profusion.
In vials of ivory and coloured glass
Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes,
Unguent, powdered, or liquid – troubled, confused
And drowned the sense in odours; stirred by the air
That freshened from the window, these ascended
In fattening the prolonged candle-flames,
Flung their smoke into the laquearia, 92
Stirring the pattern on the coffered ceiling.
Huge sea-wood fed with copper
Burned green and orange, framed by the coloured stone,
In which sad light a carvèd dolphin swam.
Above the antique mantel was displayed
As though a window gave upon the sylvan scene 98
The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king 99
So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale 100
Filled all the desert with inviolable voice
And still she cried, and still the world pursues,
‘Jug Jug’ to dirty ears.
And other withered stumps of time
Were told upon the walls; staring forms
Leaned out, leaning, hushing the room enclosed.
Footsteps shuffled on the stair.
Under the firelight, under the brush, her hair
Spread out in fiery points
Glowed into words, then would be savagely still.
‘My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
‘Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
‘What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
‘I never know what you are thinking. Think.’
I think we are in rats’ alley 115
Where the dead men lost their bones.
‘What it that noise?’
The wind under the door. 118
‘What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?’
Nothing again nothing.
‘Do
‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
‘Nothing?’
I remember
Those are pearls that were his eyes.
‘Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?’ 126
But
O O O O that Shakespeherian Rag – 128
It’s so elegant
So intelligent
‘What shall I do now? What shall I do?’
‘I shall rush out as I am, and walk the street
‘With my hair down, so. What shall we do tomorrow?
‘What shall we ever do?’
The hot water at ten.
And if it rains, a closed car at four.
And we shall play a game of chess, 138
Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door.
When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said –
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
Now Albert’s coming back, make yourself a bit smart.
He’ll want to know what you done with that money he gave you
To get herself some teeth. He did, I was there.
You have them all out, Lil, and get a nice set,
He said, I swear, I can’t bear to look at you.
And no more can’t I, I said, and think of poor Albert,
He’s been in the army for four years, he wants a good time,
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
If you don’t like it you can get on with it, I said.
Others can pick and choose if you can’t.
But if Albert makes off, it won’t be for a lack of telling.
You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.
(And her only thirty-one.)
I can’t help it, she said, pulling a long face,
It’s them pills I took, to bring it off, she said.
(She’s had five already, and nearly died of young George.)
The chemist said it would be all right, but I’ve never been the same.
You are a proper fool, I said.
Well, if Albert won’t leave you alone, there it is, I said,
What you get married for if you don’t want children?
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
Well, that Sunday Albert was home, they had a hot gammon,
And they asked me in to dinner, to get the beauty of it hot –
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME
Goonight Bill. Goonight Lou. Goonight May. Goonight.
Ta ta. Goonight. Goonight.
Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.

From: http://eliotswasteland.tripod.com/

Now that was a lot of quote, but the direction of the current is clear, even though the poetry is dense and often intentionally inscrutable. From the opulence of the room to the woman who has withered herself in order to avoid having more children to the ADHD-like interruptions at the end; whenever a culture makes the Ecclesiastes discovery – that everything is meaningless, a chasing after the wind – they throw out their morals and they discard their hope for the future, the latter of which is most visible in childbearing. Without God, as I touched upon last post about the Higgs Boson, everything is meaningless, hopeless and nothing: so why have to deal with children just to experience a few years of sexual activity? So I think that the Pill, the laws, the media: it all sells a nihilistic culture what it wants.

Update: When you go over to read the Penllyn Studio article, do look at the artwork for sale: a fantastic example of artwork as a physical visual presentation of wholesome and true philosophy (and it is quite beautiful too…).

Higgs Boson

This brief article over at NRO discusses why most people are uninterested in the potential discovery of the Higgs Boson (e.g. why everything has mass). (Read it here.)

They found the “God particle.”

That was the headline splashed all over America’s news media. It turns out that the name actually derives from substituting “God particle” for “goddamn particle,” the original name some scientists had given the elusive particle. But the media adopted the former nomenclature.

Why?

Because otherwise the bulk of humanity would not pay attention.

It obliquely strikes a sore nerve for science, especially science done without any belief in God, science done by hard-bitten atheists for hard-bitten atheists.

The discovery of the Higgs boson brings us no closer to understanding why there is a universe, not to mention whether life has meaning.

That, I think is the problem. Physics (in the Aristotelian sense) today has lost its metaphysics, and the scientists try to make up the metaphysics as they go. Frequently they are horribly bad at it too… They also seem to not be aware of how amateurish their attempts are since they suffer from impressive feelings of self-worth and educatedness… but in a lot of ways a scientist attempting philosophy today is much like a philosopher attempting science. That this is the case is a terrible shame. Science needs philosophy in order to provide a reason to do science, and philosophy needs science to winnow theories down to those plausible in the world we live in (rather than hypothetical worlds in their heads.)

But people are taught to expect everyone to be scientific or philosophical, to be artistic or mathematics. The one is supposedly the antithesis of the other. This division is poison for every discipline. When you observe how a violinist practices, read about how artists like van Eyck painted, and look at the tedious research of a Noble Laureate in Chemistry, the focus the discipline and the occasional flashes of pure genius are the same. Even the mindset is the same. Science and art and philosophy have so much in common, and they support each other. Obviously not everyone can do all arts, philosophies, and sciences well, true genius in each one of these is almost a monomania. However, I think artists should at least dabble in science and mathematics, and absolutely know philosophy (another discussion for another time, but I think art is visible philosophy), scientists should learn philosophy and music or art, and philosophers… well I guess it would be a start if any existed. Real philosophy is almost extinct, rather what we mostly have is the study of philosophy, not philosophy itself.

The Cause for the Celebration

The Declaration of Independence (actually officially: The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America) is really the heart of the country. The Constitution is the practical means to form a government that conforms to the mold presented in the philosophy and ideas of the Declaration.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

Read it all, it deserves to be read and cherished. And it is Independence Day, what better to do on Independence day than read the document at the root of the celebration. Also, Johnny Cash, and one of my favorites: Ragged Old Flag.

National Identity

One of the interesting events on my trip to Greece took place sitting in a coffee shop. This activity seems to be the national sport of the Greeks. These coffee shops are not at all like American ones; not just because they are mostly outdoor seating which is an accident of climate, but because while you go to a place like Starbucks to grab coffee on the way to work, or go to places like the local coffee shop my wife and I like to go to wherein most inhabitants come to buy tasty coffee and write papers and do schoolwork; Greek coffee shops are about talking. Everyone is sitting around talking.

So, my wife and I discussed national character with two of her Greek friends. Among the subtopics of this wide ranging several hour conversation was: Whether the accretions of culture you are exposed to from the country you are born in is accidental to your personality or essential, What is the key element that makes a nation unique, and of course, Whether America is really exceptional with some sort of claim on being the greatest country in the world. While all the opposing arguments I encountered were not new to me, what was new was discussing them with someone who actually believed them.

Since there were Greeks and an American and a half 🙂 at the table, for the purpose of argument we decided to try and discuss what makes Greeks, Greek, and Americans, American and see if that could help show us what parts of these things were essential to one’s person or accidental. Interestingly enough, this is a very difficult issue, and the core of the issue comes down to, can you say anything different about what makes one person Greek and what makes another Turkish. The first answer to what makes Greeks Greek was the answer that has always been given from tribal societies to the Third Reich: Greeks are Greek (and therefore unique and special) because they were born to Greeks, they are ethnically, genetically Greek. This of course fails, because Turks, French, Italians, Spaniards, Arabs, nearly every nation and tribe in the world will give the same answer varied for their own ethnicity. There is actually nothing particularly special about being Greek, except for the fact that there are fewer of them than the Han Chinese and so it is a more ‘exclusive club’. So we moved on to culture, to religion, to language, all but religion being accidental to a person.

On the other side though, and the ultimate proof of at least the uniqueness of America is what I think makes Americans, American. America is a series of ideas, and anyone who believes some to most of them is American. Being American cannot be founded on race, we have a pretty fair sampling of them all. For instance, I am (probably) descended from Germans, Englishmen, Irishmen, Scots or Welsh, etc. My children, should the Good Lord give me any, will be half Greek. Being American also is largely independent of culture, we have bits and pieces of culture from everyone who has come here. However being American does mean something. There is something different between Americans and Frenchmen and Turks and Arabs and Chinese. And that can be found in ideas.

This is what makes America a unique country, it is a country not founded upon race, not divided upon culture, and only mostly connected by language. Honestly, if 200 years from now, all Americans spoke Chinese or Spanish, but believed in, and fought with votes (and guns if need be) for the same ideas, they would be just as American as I am, and even just as American as George Washington was.

It takes some gall to feel entitled to list the ideas that make the soul of America. Yet, fortunately I only draw on the thoughts expressed by others from our founding, and so I plough on. First, America was founded by Christian people fleeing the persecution of state churches who claimed (and believed) that their people were the new chosen people of God. And so the American government was based on the assumption that every individual is in a personal relationship with God. Hence, there are many rights that the individual has that neither government, other people, or anything else can take away. These are the unalienable rights of the Declaration. I would say that this is the central idea of America. The others include ideas like the idea that people should control their government, that if people do not like what their government does, they have the right to replace it, and that people have every right to pursue their own interests and happiness as long as it does not come at the expense of other people. These ideas engender the desire to feel and be free, to indulge in liberty and to chase one’s dream.

So, I argued that being Greek is not necessarily part of a person’s essence because it (as defined by the Greek Friends) consists of a large collection of accidents, like language, genetics, and cultural upbringing. However, being American can be part of a person’s essence because it is at its core a set of ideas and a worldview, which, though it can change, is part of a person’s essence.

For a fantastic discussion of culture and this topic (and how these ideas confront modernity) read the ill titled, yet excellent How Civilizations Die: (And Why Islam Is Dying Too)by one of my favorite commentators David P. Goldman (pen name Spengler).

Other things I will likely write about that came from this conversation are: Who has a better claim on being descended from ancient Athenian democracy, the ridiculous notion that America is too young to talk about these ideas and probably other things as I think of them. Also, I promise there will be a sonnet before tomorrow night; I refuse to lose to Thalia!

The Greater Good

I used to be open to the idea that the greater good existed: that theoretically, there was some course of action in any situation that would result in the greatest good for the greatest number. This is one key part of the theories of collectivism from Marxist states to global liberalism. The second lynchpin is, of course, that some person (or group of persons) can know what that collective good is, and implement it regardless of the will and desire and even good of any number of individuals.  It was always this second assumption I found repulsive.

Consider the following. Under this theory, collectivists can justify any actions whatsoever by claiming that those actions saved (or will save) an even greater number of hypothetical people at the expense of some very real injury to some number of very real people.  If the critic says ten thousand people will lose work, homes, and the very meaning in their lives; the collectivist points to the million hypothetical people whose lives have been improved. The misery always affects real people who can suffer, starve, and die, while the good always seems to turn out to be for people who will never exist. (Other than the collectivist leaders who always seem to make good like every communist dictator ever.)

The argument can always be made, and is indeed always made by those who advocate modern statism or fascism or communism, that those who made the decisions in the past just weren’t the right people. The idea is never wrong. This insistence leads me to think about the very idea of ‘the greater good’.  What if there is no such thing. What if, ultimately, there are only ever individual goods, just as there are only individual rights, and individual responsibility.

And I guess this question hinges upon the very nature of man. If you believe that man is merely a fancy pack animal, then you might well agree that the nebulous ‘greater good’ exists, and it is worth looking for. If you believe that people are unique, whether due to creation by God in His image, or due to the humanist argument that man’s reason makes him unique, then it must be the case that the only good things are those done by individuals for individuals. Things done by people uncoerced by government or other people.

So why does this idea of the ‘greater good’ persist? It is recurs because the men in charge like being in charge, and the best excuse of onerous unpopular government laws, regulations, and wars is that such-and-so is for ‘the best’. (It also certainly has appeal to people who do not wish to be sovereign moral entities, and be therefore responsible for their own actions… another topic for another time. Today, we rant about government. 🙂 )

This is the talk of an oligarch: I am an American, how I feel about governing elites is somewhere between distrust and disgust. This is especially true when people with fancy degrees try to tell me what kind of toilet I can have, what kind of light bulbs I can buy, what the mileage of the car I drive has to be. What do they know about me, my needs, my life, my goals, my dreams, my family, my desires? Why should they be empowered to decide for everyone what is best for them? I believe than God made every man and woman unique and individual, that we form societies, not so that we can give up our God-given personhood to a collective whole, but so that we can interact and love other individuals. I think that as such, there is no ‘greater good’. There is no set of conditions that is good for me and the man down the street uniformly. It is the right of the individual (every human being) to pursue his own good as long as it does not harm another. It is also the right of the individual to sacrifice his own good for who and what he chooses, and no man or woman or government or council of academics has any authority or right to demand that an individual sacrifice his good, his rights or his individualism for anyone or anything. Otherwise they are enforcing their idea of morality on people. Otherwise, we are not free men, but slaves.

Note: For fun with ‘The Greater Good’, do watch Hot Fuzz a truly hilarious film with Simon Pegg…

Another Note: There is certainly one universal good for all mankind. It is from the outside, and only an Omnipotent, Omniscient, and Omnipresent God could know and do it… The redemption from sin brought about by Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection. As it turns out, this one universal good theologically belies all others. Everything people dub ‘the greater good’ actually takes away from the individual and thereby drains people of their personhood. The Cross restores every man, woman, and child’s personhood to them, each in an individual relationship with the Creator and Redeemer of the universe.

Sonnet Duel: Disappointed Alchemist

So, with great sadness, I am using my back-up sonnet in the sonnet duel. Being sick for some time left me no time to write sonnets (or do much more than sleep). So here is a sonnet I wrote for the Thompson family annual Chesterton poetry party. The background is that everything I make and use in my research is white…. while everyone else in Inorganic Chemistry is doing stuff with green, red and many colored compounds… Recently though this has changed, and I have started working with a molybdenum and vanadium based catalyst which is orange, and changes to red-brown and then to green upon adding the reaction is catalyzes…. So somewhat sated in my desire for pretty colors at work, I nevertheless post here ‘The Disappointed Alchemist’. I hope you enjoy it. I will link to my competition when it appears. Porcine Transgression

I becams’t an inorganic chemist
Haphazardly, by promises seduc’d
(Spoken softly, by Sybil who liest)
Of brilliant colours to essence reduc’d.
I had thought to create sanguine, azure
Sable, verdant compounds, myster’ous, whole,
As hoary Alchemist of old, hunch’d o’er
Sought full transmutation of leaden soul,
I had thought to find mystery and subtlety.
Recalcitrance, instead, and thoughtless perfidy
In great supply I find. Now, my soul sees.
Lo! Mankind hath lost all but rational
Deceit, which, as Circe kept Ulysses
Does captivate and mesmerize the soul.