I will post two reader comments today.And really, I couldn’t have said any of this better. Your comments are always appreciated here at Black Sun Journal, even if I don’t respond to them right away, and I’m going to start posting some of the most insightful ones.
First, from Andrew Marks on the meaning and value of our short lives:
There was one good–if accidental–observation from the hate mail (previous article): the term “this sick violent world.” Yes, it is a sick and violent world if the measuring stick is compassion, community, empathy, excellence, optimism, vision, leadership, integrity, courage, critical thought, respect for others, human freedom, equal opportunity, etc.
But there is a reason that the world is as it is: “red in tooth and claw” Darwinian evolution. We’re animals. Life is suffering because Darwinian evolution is blind. To speak metaphorically, as if to personalize a blind force, “it doesn’t care” about human happiness. It just is.
I strongly recommend a remarkable book by Charles Fisher, Ph.D., entitled Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World. Fisher traces the biological roots of human suffering, and his thoughts are as profound as they are provocative–in contradistinction to the magical world view. The book has a preface by Lynn Margulis, Carl Sagan’s first wife (and a world-renown biologist), and an introduction by Dorion Sagan, Carl’s son. I’m far enough into it now to understand why: this is a hard-core biology book that pulls no punches. It is a deep exploration of what nature is really like–for instance, of how animals catch diseases or die violent deaths in the wild.
In brief, human suffering exists because it is built into the deep biological structures of human life. The evolutionary advents of self-reflective consciousness, speech, and an agrarian world have created conditions wherein members of our species are able to effectively communicate with great precision their sufferings, and reflect on them in their plentiful leisure time (compared to how much time they had to do so during the hunter-gatherer era).
Although I’m only halfway through the book, I think that the message is that although some of us can meditate as one means of potentially taking the edge off of some forms of suffering some of the time, there is no escape from old age (assuming that we make it that far), sickness, and death.
I don’t know and I don’t care whether or not there is a deity. Personally, I doubt it, but I’m too aware of epistemological problems to declare with a certainty that I don’t believe that there is one or not, or that there is a life after death, or not. I hope for the best but fear the worst. I look on in horror as my parents age. I wonder what it will be like–as an only child–to have to take care of them. I wonder what my own life will be like when it approaches its end. Will I die quietly or loudly? Will I die with courage or in the throes of terror and in great pain? The latter seems far more likely to me.
When I think about cults, I see little that separates them from Fortune 1000 corporations. Capitalism is merely a social reflection of biological evolution. It is by its nature violent. Any gains that have been made in improving the quality of human lives have been achieved through science and humanism. In the end, what, really, do we have apart from each other and our collective wits?
In his brilliant song, “Young Americans,” David Bowie sings the insightful lyric, “We live for just these twenty years, still we have to die for the fifty more.” My twenty years ended eighteen years ago. While I wouldn’t call the past eighteen years “dying,” exactly, biologically, it’s true. Even psychologically in some sense, it feels true.
Life is short. It seems so ridiculous to delay anything: the pursuit of one’s dreams, the pursuit of love, the pursuit of joy, the application of one’s strengths to try to create and hopefully realize joy.
Wittgenstein wrote something to the effect that whatever reason there is that we’re here, it doesn’t appear to be to enjoy ourselves. That’s surely the understatement of the past several centuries.
Perhaps life has a meaning, or perhaps not. I tend to think that by “meaning,” most people denote experiences that produce pleasurable feelings. That’s why I theorize that music is meaningful to many people. It alters brain chemistry in often salubrious ways. Some relationships accomplish the same end.
It would be wrong to equate correlation with causation–qualia with brain states. The case for causation certainly does seem quite powerful, however.
My name isn’t Andrew Marks, but it’s as good a name as any. I am a philosopher, though, and I am gay. At 38, I stare from atop a hill, with life half over, and an uncertain second half (if I’m “lucky”) ahead. I’ve had young friends die–always the most talented and beloved. I witness so much suffering every single day among people living on the streets of Milwaukee. Every day in the business world, I see–beneath the patina of personas adopted by individuals to win customers and money–absolute brutality and ruthlessness.
But every once in a rare while I see acts of kindness. The irony is that “bad” people can be kind, and “good” people can be cruel. It would be a drastic oversimplification (and commit the fundamental attribution error in psychology) to suggest that there even is such a thing as a good or bad person. There are actions that individuals commit, and whether they’re good or bad ultimately depends on what one values. Camus would have pointed out that no matter how hard one tries, one’s every actions inevitably cause harm to others, in however diffuse a way.
One belief that I firmly uphold is the belief in hell, because I think that we’re in it–here and now. Enjoy as much of life as you can while you can, for tomorrow–whether in 24 h or 24 y, or soon enough thereafter–we will die.
Then, from Cristy on the impossibility of Christianity, the weakness of Pascal’s Wager, and the philosophical nuances of Marxism and communism:
As a philosophy major, I have to say something here. I think that the reason that so many traditional Christians dislike philosophy is because any serious philosophical disscusion needs to be logical, and logically, Christianity is impossible. In order for even a theoretical god to be omnipotent, omnicient, etc, that god has to be either A. immaterial or B. all matter (as in pantheism). A philosophical defense of Christianity is impossible because it has to contradict itself internally before it is even exposed to reality (Jesus would have to be both immaterial and material as well as infinite and finite).
Oh, and a note on Pascal, who Fraiser mentions- There is an argument called Pascal’s Wager. This argument is considered so weak that my intro to philosophy teacher used it as an example on how to demolish someone else’s argument. A college freshman is expected to be able to see the obvious holes in his Pascal’s reasoning.
If you want some interesting philosophical reading on religion and materialism, I recommend Ludwig Feuerbach. He’s not very well known and not all of his works are available in English, but he’s brilliant. I would suggest that you be familiar with Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz first because Feuerbach does a lot of arguing against them. Feuerbach was an inspiration to people as diverse as Freud and Marx. Speaking of Marx, Peter, above you referred to communism as a “secular religion”. You should be careful when using that term, because communism as defined by Marx clearly excludes communism as defined by Vladimir Lenin. Marxist communism (often considered a branch of left Hegelism) is about eliminating oppression, whereas Soviet Socialism is all about oppression. I think that before people go throwing around the term communist, they should read up on Marx-not by reading about Marx, but by reading his actual writings. Also, be careful because several Soviet leaders actually make up sayings and attribute them to Marx or attribute Engel’s statements to Marx. Despite Marx and Engel’s close friendship, they had serious differences in opinion and in how they wished to accomplish their goals. In fact, Marx thought that democracy was communist. Marx’s writing on the Polish democratic revolution makes this ecspecially clear, but even the communist manifesto (cowritten by Engel) encourages participation in democracy. The works of Marx and Engel are available online so you can go see for yourself.
Cristy, I would respond that true communism is an ideal that I think is unreachable within the human condition. As Andrew mentioned, it contradicts human biology. When practiced, communism seems to always degenerate into something like Soviet (or Cuban, or North Korean, or Venezuelan) socialism, with a corrupt ruling elite. But in the way that John Lennon imagined it, it remains an ideal of ‘brotherhood.’
Sometimes I feel the same way about objectivity, which happens to be my personal ‘sacred’ ideal. Since consciousness is by definition subjectivity, true objectivity is always just a little out of our reach. But we can still try.