Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Bad News

Here's a link < > providing an overview of the negative human condition. After offering an outline of human suffering, the author goes on to suggest a few ways the problem might be approached, which mainly boil down to a rather simple mandate, namely: DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Now, I'm not so pessimistic as to suggest that productive steps can't be taken to allay at least some human misery. In fact, let's take the bold step here of concretizing the hedonistic ideal of the transhumanists; that some day all suffering, physical and psychological, will be overcome through technology and positive bio-transformation. Perhaps one day humans will come to resemble a cross between the Borg and the Teletubbies, where resistance will be futile only because there is nothing further to resist. I mean, barring some possibly insurmountable, unforeseen barrier(s), it COULD happen(?)

But even the most pollyannish proponents of such an herculean task MUST have at least SOME notion of the time such a thing might take to achieve. And in the meantime? How many more human lives, with the attendant percentages of suffering?

I like to call this justification of breeding toward some future paradise the 'cannon fodder' argument, whereby we launch our future generations into the gap between now, and some hopeful shangri-la. Thus our abstract, vicarious (and imagined) immortality shall be assured.
I've also heard folks like Dennis Prager advocate the same idea, somewhat pared down, as a European solution to stave off the invading hordes of Islamibreeders. In fact, he has labelled a couple limiting themselves to bearing only one child: 'selfish'. What next- who's gonna pay my social security?

So, here's a note to any future Walden Twoarian who might happen to pass this way: Hey! Your pleasure dome is built on the bones of an eon of where you step.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

tggp said...

I think I'd like to try and make some of the comments part of an extended posting dialogue on the experiment of sorts. Hope you don't mind, tggp...

"Nice blog. I'll agree with you on religion and free-will (the best thing I've read on that is Greene & Cohen's For the Law, Neuroscience Changes Nothing and Everything). But I have to say, I like living and I don't think my experience is unusual. We are primed by evolution to like living enough that we try to avoid death." tggp...

I don't doubt that plenty of people enjoy living to some degree, depending on lots of personal factors. And while I'm sympathetic to the idea that we often talk ourselves into a happiness that's not justified by our own sense of empathy or morality; still, I'm not sure we can always draw a solid dividing line between 'pure' happiness, and a internally generated 'false' happiness (as opposed to a feigned happiness, for instance).

As for evolutionary factors; well, I suppose we could reduce everything down to evolutionary predispositions, or perhaps even further, to 'mere' chemistry (or quantum physics! After that, who knows???). But if we talk at the level of behaviorism, we can find many exceptions to evolutionary generalities concerning a variety of actions. In fact, there is a sense in which our inherited behavioral structures have extended themselves out into the environment to form societies, with rules of order which sometimes fly in the face of our individual, genetically inherited predilections. Thus we learn to cooperate instead of fight (sometimes). We learn to plan, instead of acting on stictly instinctual needs of immediate gratification (again, sometimes).
And, sometimes, we choose not to have children; and sometimes, we even choose to kill ourselves.

I guess what I'm saying is that there are always these emergent factors which appear with increases in complexity, and certainly the social human, as well as the society as a whole, is tougher to predict the further you move away from the root primitivism. I'm hoping that most readers will recognize that the thread running through my arguments is one of sympathy for the human condition; and indeed, for all of life- though I believe a human being, as the most overall complex system in the known universe, also suffers the most, and ultimately owes the gift of non-existence to future generations which-should-not-be (pardon the silly verbosity...I also have a poety website...hehehe!). Thanks for reading, tggp, and for your comment.

Two Instances of Where Religion Gets it Wrong

They think they can do something about it, and...

they keep breeding.

One Instance of Where Religion Got it Right

The major tenet of most religions is that there's something fundamentally wrong with existence.

A Fundamentalist Christian Analogy...Pt. 2

Ok, so all the prophecies of plagues, natural disasters and whatnot in the Book of John's Revelation have been fulfilled, God has separated the wheat from the chaff, and the favored few are out mowing the perfect Kentucky Bluegrass in front of their solid gold houses in paradise. All is bliss in God's heaven. Except for the fact that, down below...

many of the parents, and children, and uncles, and aunts, and cousins of the heavenly host are experiencing an everlasting existence of exquisitely designed suffering; the sort of absolute torture which only an omniscient, all-powerful deity could conceive. Like Freddy Krueger, He knows what you're afraid of! And don't think you can cop out with a "That's just metaphorical imagery" plea. No matter how you slice the pain, hell spells MISERY, and to an extreme our finite minds could not even begin to comprehend.

Now, I ask you: how could a person of, not only conscience, but purportedly PERFECT conscience, be happy under such circumstances? Much less love the God who created this arrangement in the first place? Let's outline the possible answers to this question, and analyze them a bit.

1) The bible hints at the idea that, in the afterlife, God will lift up the spirits, wipe away the tears, and otherwise lighten the moods of His Chosen. How could He accomplish this, given the fact that the preponderance of humankind are suffering eternally in the most excruciating ways imaginable? I suppose He could just lie; assure everybody that their loved ones have been put up in a nice EconoLodge in purgatory. But then, supposedly God doesn't do that- the lie thing, I mean. Many apologists, when wrestling with this question, have come up with the belief that God will simply erase any uncomfortable knowledge from the minds of His know, the ignorance is bliss credo. But for now, I'd like to give the almighty creator a little more credit than this...seems like a pretty fucking cheap trick for a Godhead to employ. Also, I figure He'd want His people to work this out on their own. After all, he didn't recreate those minds and spirits in the image of His own perfection for nothing.

2) I guess people could just learn to ignore, and ultimately forget all about, the downside of the Holy Trinity dichotomy. I'm sure there's plenty to do in heaven, and the ugly truth might easily be forgotten in the midst of all the pleasant activities going on all the time. Not to mention that the focus of eternal worship and praise is probably a great way to get your mind off the fact that some demon is reaming the ass of your 16 year old agnostic daughter with the business end of a pitchfork (and don't accuse me of reaching here. My ex-wife believes that is exactly what's going to happen to our daughters if they don't wise up).

However, it's hard to believe that such 'super brains' could just forget such fundamental and harsh realities. "Have you seen my keys, dear? Oh, and what's that horrible screaming sound in the distance? Sigh...must be the wind."

In Part 3, I'll continue with my list of attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Fundamentalist Christian Analogy...Pt. 1

According to a rather literal Christian reading of the bible, there awaits a coming judgment, with profound implications for every human who's ever lived. Books will be opened, accounts will be weighed, trumpets will sound...yada, yada, yada. Ultimately, all of mankind will be divided into two groups. The smaller group- supposedly, those who accepted God, and/or Jesus Christ, and/or the Holy Spirit (that trinity thing still isn't quite sorted out ) into their hearts- will immediately be sent to a land of milk and honey, a world of perfection where nary a desire will go unfulfilled, forever and ever, amen.

Meanwhile, the bulk of the human race (the bible isn't clear on the exact number; for sake of argument, let's agree on 70%), for the crime of choosing the wrong deity (or, perhaps worse, feeling ambiguous about the whole matter), will be cast into the sort of torture pit that only an omniscient, all powerful and ultra-benevolent(???) deity could conjure up. Admittedly, some make the case that all the fire and brimstone is metaphorical, and that hell is simply a place absent of God (and the implied love, friendship, sense of belonging, etc that supposedly comes with the package), where the torture will be of the merely(???) psychological variety. Either way, a tough row to hoe. And, of course, it, too, goes on forever and ever, amen.

Let's examine, then, the states of mind of those on the upper floor.

First of all, I think we have to assume some sort of moral correlation between God's heaven and the denizens which dwell therein. I realize the basic Christian dogma (allowing some flux between denominations) makes it fairly clear that entrance into the Kingdom is predicated upon personal acquiescence to 'God's plan'; specifically, that a person must accept God, through the mediative aspect of Jesus Christ, into his/her heart. Of course, there are enough arguable details of what this proposition actually entails to fill libraries. However, for the sake of this argument, we'll adopt the encapsulated, bumper sticker catch phrase, 'Believe and Receive', and leave it at that.

Well, not quite 'at that'. Because, all wrapped up in this 'accepting Christ' motif is the concept of personal transformation; that is, the true believer, through a new mode of metaphysical accessibility granted by his status as a God Childe, is automatically imbued with a new, and supposedly 'higher', morality. There is a stiffening of emphasis on becoming a better person; an empowerment from the inside, as it were, and characterized by a heightened moral sensibility which most of us would call a 'conscience'. And I think that I could argue that one of conscience's most basically concomitant features is a sense of empathy; or, at least sympathy (personally, I don't see much difference between the two)...

In Part 2, I'll examine the contradiction of a superior conscience willingly acceding to Christianity's heaven/hell framework.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Heath Ledger is Dead

The Australian actor Heath Ledger died a few days ago, and as usual it was heralded as a 'tragedy'. For whom? Surely for his family and close friends. Perhaps for his agent, and anyone else who stood to make money off him. But for Mr. Ledger personally?

A 28 year old man goes to sleep at the height of his career; a movie star, rich, loved by millions...surely he existed in that top 2 percent or so of people whose lifestyles can be said to be very to extremely pleasurable. And he simply doesn't wake up. No death by degree for Heath. No gradual loss of senses, of physical capacity, of mind. No being slowly and painfully eaten away by cancer, nor drowning in the liquids of his own failing lungs. No painful and debilitating bone or muscular disease. No auto accident leaving him a quadraplegic for the last 40 years of his life. No knife shoved between his ribs outside a liquor store by some junkie who liked his coat. All things considered, not a bad way to go out.

But in at least a large percentage of the public's eye, his death is a tragedy. Why? I believe it's because a young person's death, especially one's whose life we have granted greater providence through the vehicle of celebrity, presses at the barrier of illusion we've created for ourselves that life is 'ok', and somehow removed from that shape underneath the sheet. Day to day happiness requires a daily maintenance schedule consisting of self deception, and the ability to either ignore or re-interpret the ugly stuff that's going on around us all the time. Cognitive dissonance buttressed by sometimes vague, sometimes exceedingly mapped out mythology, is the favored coping mechanism employed by us higher-type primates, it seems.

Furthermore, since celebrity equals authority in this society, Heath's death is a rub in our collective faces. "If I can go out so unexpectedly," warns the god, "what's that say for the rest of you?" And, of course, not many of us will be fortunate enough to shuck this mortal coil in such a light and easy manner. There will be pain, and weeping, and fear...and none of these are even guaranteed to immediately yield the fruit of our demise, which at least promises the cessation of those precursors. Hell, the suffering can go on intermittently, or even continuously for years, or decades! And the worst part is- in the back of our minds, we are exquisitely aware of these facts. So we cope by lying, and we lie to ourselves so well that we come to believe that it's perfectly all right to bear children, and then we lie to them, telling them the same lie we've told ourselves, that somehow it will be different for them.

Then of course, there's the notion of vicarious on after we die through our children, and our childrens' children, etc. A notion, need I remind the reader, which is one hundred percent a figment of the imagination? We no more live on through future generations than Heath Ledger lives on in his films (at this point, we might venture off into some discussions about what actually makes up the personality, of what the idea of personhood actually entails, but that's too far afield for this blog). My point is that we so dread our own deaths that we concoct these elaborate fantasies to mask the truth from ourselves, then we have children, knowing full well the horrible state we're bringing them into, and then we deal with THAT by foisting on them the same, re-cycled fantasies (that seems an awful lot like the end of the last paragraph...ah, well, it bears repeating).

Anyhow, Heath, it's too bad you don't know how lucky you were. You went out at the top of your game, painlessly, and you never even saw it coming. If it were only so for most of us, including the countless generations which will doubtlessly follow, including your baby daughter (not judging you here...I made the same mistake). I wish the best for her, and the rest of your family, and for the rest of all of us, as long as I'm making wishes which I know won't come true for a sizeable percentage of humanity.

We are the future's dirt.


To my way of thinking, there have been three schools of thought which, throughout history, have been held out-of-bounds to honest inquiry and criticism. The first is religion; at least, when it comes to questioning the efficacy of the idea itself, since certainly the supporters of the various creeds have spent no little energy in lambasting all metaphysical belief systems other than their own. The second is the concept of free-will, a belief that even many a dyed-in-the-wool atheist and/or scientific naturalist seems disinclined to let go of, mostly based on a rather ill-contrived 'intuition'; which, in my opinion, flies in the face of the modern scientific schema i.e. cause-and-effect, or "somebody get that ghost out of our deterministic paradigm!"

The third, and probably hardest, notion to stomach is the conviction that something is fundamentally wrong with life itself, and that we should therefore stop breeding, and let the race die out under one of two scenarios (with perhaps some minor variants, which I plan to discuss sometime later on this blog). This idea is so radical, and supposedly counter-intuitive, that the discussion is considered by most to be beyond the pale of serious conversation. I disagree.

There've been some pretty tricky philosophical arguments on both sides of this issue, and I'll do my best to sidestep a lot of the technical aspects. Suffice it to say for now that a lot of this hinges on what people conceive of as being 'good', and I believe the arguments often get sidetracked in attempting to quantify 'good' in a rationalistic sort of way; which, as I hope to show, is impossible to do. Ultimately, I think our sense of rightness and wrongness flows from an emotional response base, which we then tend to rationally justify only in retrospect. I suppose there are exceptions-at least, ostensible exceptions- and certainly there's a kind of feedback loop oscillating between our thinking and emotional modes of being. Still, I think I can demonstrate that there is a universal pool of emotional experience from which we draw our personal values, and cultural mores. Just an overly-wordy way of saying that, at base, we have more in common than we think we do. And that, furthermore, and just as we do with the religion and free-will issues, we tend to often draw faulty conclusions when it comes to our personal experiences and thought processes, which we then isolate and sanctify under the misguided misnomer 'intuition'.

Concerning religious experience, this allows a person like famed scientist Francis Collins to see a frozen waterfall, emotionally discover beauty in it, then erroneously translate that experience into the realization that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of the universe. It also grants permission to many otherwise well-trained, objective observers of nature to believe in free will, completely by-passing the principle of causation which is at the very heart of authentic scientific methodology (this includes the recent quantum indeterminism end-around plays, as if spontaneous micro-jumps in the quantum world have anything at all to do with autonomous agency).

And, of course, it helps us to foster the belief that life is good and ultimately worthwhile- when, in reality, it isn't.