It seems to me that my life, like surely many people’s lives, resembles the trajectory of modernism to postmodernism (to post-postmodernism?). That is, like many people, when I was a child everything was imbued with a robust intrinsic identity and meaning, both of which could be definitively and determinedly known. One of the most obvious examples of this was the faith in the near omniscience of my parents, and once in school and out of the house, in that of other adults. In the very beginning, there is truly nothing unknown; and though I did not have firsthand knowledge of it, I knew others must. When a child like this, the pronouncements and judgments of parents and adults are absolute, unquestionable, and though sometimes terrifying, an ultimate source of security. There is the recognition of one’s own limits and simultaneously the boundlessness of the abilities of adults, not the least of which was the ability of my parents to make me feel secure and loved.
I know others had very different childhood experiences—something my wife reminds me of regularly, for which I am grateful. Perhaps I was ridiculously naïve; I’m sure plenty of other children either figured it out or at least had premonitions of their parents’ limitations much earlier, but not me. It would not be until my late teens that I really began to question not only my parents’ abilities but the soundness of social institutions more generally. For along with confidence in parents and adults, comes confidence in institutions. I mean institutions such as the church, school, government, business, history, and the unsurpassed, and unsurpassable, greatness of the United States. When young, so many of these seem to work by an intrinsic magic, only to turn later to have been “nothing but” a placebo effect. Continue reading →
I recently saw on Facebook something like, “It’s not the opinions you post, but what you do that matters.” While I think I certainly understand the point, I think such a line misses that words and deeds are often the same. Consider, what are you to do if you want to help others but you have limited resources and come into contact with few people in your day-to-day life? Well, one thing to do is to post your opinion, i.e., write something that may prove useful to others. Is this not doing something? Let us hope so.
Speaking as an American, our culture is expert at eliding the ubiquity of pain, suffering, and death. If you ever have occasion to talk to others about their suffering or the suffering of their friends and family, you will soon discover nearly everyone has a story to tell. But we often (usually?) are unaware of this common thread that runs through all of our lives. It Is much like the parable in which a distraught, grieving mother who has recently lost her child goes to the Buddha for solace. He tells her he’ll help her after she goes around to each household in town and collects a mustard seed from those homes that have not suffered a similar loss. She returns to the Buddha empty handed and wiser.
A song from Modest Mouse begins with these lyrics: “I was in heaven – I was in hell – Believe in neither – But fear them as well.” Subtract the claim of having been to both and just consider the claim, “I believe in neither heaven nor hell, but I fear them.” Further, suppose someone asserts this with the utmost sincerity. Is there anything strange about that assertion? Is it at all like “Moore’s Paradox”: “It’s raining but I don’t believe it.” ?
A person sincerely making the claim about fearing heaven and hell seems to be saying that X doesn’t exist but I fear X. Perhaps that is not strange after all, since we fear things that don’t exist yet, e.g., the last moments of life as we are dying, and things that may never exist, e.g., getting fired from our jobs, going bankrupt, etc. But while those things are feared and do not exist, they are believed to exist in the future (or it is believed that they will exist) or believed to be possibilities. But presumably anyone who doesn’t believe in heaven or hell doesn’t believe that they will come to exist or that they are possibilities in the same way that losing one’s job is a possibility.
Perhaps one could not believe in heaven or hell, but fear them because one fears that one is wrong about there not being either. Insofar as one fears being wrong, one can fear that which one is wrong about.
But I wonder if we couldn’t approach it from another direction viz. looking at the ways in which one might believe in neither. That is, we can distinguish between a mere lack of belief in X and a “positive” disbelief in X. So a person who merely lacks belief in heaven and hell might sensibly fear them in a way that a person who holds a positive disbelief in them could not. I may be building something out of nothing here (or perhaps nothing out of something). But part of the joy of doing philosophy is to start wondering about something and see where it leads, even if it often leads nowhere.
Let us define the number i as equal to the square root of -1. So i cannot be positive or negative, but all real numbers are positive or negative—so i is imaginary. I am pretty much the farthest thing from a mathematician, but i strikes me as being something that we think we have some understanding of, but we really don’t, similar to saying “There is either a red square-circle or there is not a red square-circle.”
But the funny thing is, we can perform operations with i:
(2i)(4i) = (2 · 4)(ii), which equals (8)( i2), which equals (8)(-1), which equals -8.
So from something that doesn’t really make sense, namely “i = the square root of -1,” we get something that makes perfect sense. How much of philosophy is like this?