Saturday, September 17, 2005

Lost in Place

The Crown of Creation?

I made another mistake today. Even when I'm really careful I still misunderstand stuff and I've been wondering if it's even possible to ever get it right. First mistake was reading the newspaper. I'll bet if I could find a paper from Sumer from six or seven thousand years ago, it'd be the same stories about the same things. The various people would be different but they'd be doing the same stuff. They'd be worried about drought and famine and war and bandits, revolutionaries, violence, moral decay, crowded streets and clogged pipes. People have devised some pretty clever technology since then but that's about the only measurable difference.

Another mistake was reading a news magazine, one of those full of opinion and commentary. These people seem so sure of themselves, as if everything were so obvious and any disagreement was pointless and, probably, criminal. Odd that someone else in the same magazine holds an opposite opinion with at least the same degree of certainty. Now they can't both be right if they so adamantly disagree - but they can both be wrong. The very fact they do disagree so vehemently suggests to me that they are both probably wrong and I should look somewhere in the middle or just ignore the whole issue. It does seem that the stronger one holds to some opinion the more desperate their need to be right. Scary stuff that.

So then I tried TV. Always a mistake. Some sleazy dude is selling insurance. He looks just the way he should, perfectly coiffed shiny white hair, expensive suit, nice tie, practiced and articulate delivery. A hollow and insubstantial symbol of successful middle age. He's telling me that I should buy his insurance to protect those “left behind” when I die. Why, Social Security only covers a fraction of the cost of my burial! Who's going to pay my “final expenses”? How could I be so thoughtless and selfish (he implies, all syrupy and smooth) as to keep my money for myself! Fact is, my heirs have been getting their inheritance for decades. There will be nothing left because I gave it to them already. Sadly, this is one of the least offensive assaults to my intelligence that TV offers so routinely.

Ok then, I'll go for drive, it's a nice day after all. Big mistake. Traffic everywhere. Great huge SUVs everywhere, packed with fat people going to the great huge malls, to buy bigger clothes, no doubt. Those going to or coming from the malls head straight for the fast-fat-food restaurants, the donut shops, Ben and Jerry's. Some of the more adventurous are going to a theater, after their snack. The roads are packed, the gas stations are full of gluttonous SUVs, all the Wall Marts and Kmarts are jammed. There's no place to go and a peaceful drive in the country means navigating through the traffic and the endless strip malls wedged between fat cars with loud sub-woofer blasting Rap and bad attitude dudes.

Now I'm pretty sure that this is not the world I belong in and I kinda suspect no one else belongs here either. We can't really believe that this is the best we can do. What's happened? What can we do? Was this the whole purpose of the Big Bang and ten zillion years of evolution? Compared to the universe and all of human history we seem not only insignificant but absurd.


The Pursuit of Plodiphany

There is really so little to think about, when you think about it. Most of the stuff we think about refers to things that don't even exist and, when they do, we are more concerned about what they mean than what they are. Very little of the natural world that is available to be xperienced is thought about simply because it's obvious already. We don't just enjoy a sunny day, we analyse it, comparing it to other days in other places with other people. We think about how it makes us feel rather than just feeling it as it is.

The world outside the human mind is far less important than the one we've constructed within it. Our mind is our world, everything else is mere ornamentation. Over thousands of years we have learned to devise all manner of realities so that now the products of the mind are far more real than anything we experience in nature.

The realist of our realities is our belief that our personal reality is really real. We don't care about things but rather what we believe about things. The ultimate Truth is our wholly subjective belief in the accuracy of our own understanding. This devotion to the validity of our beliefs is our most defining characteristic.

If we were interested in what is True about this world, we would have all agreed to some minimum standard of civility long ago. There would be no controversy over what constitutes justice or duty or good or evil nor would we thrash around from one moral dilemma to the next. Since no such standard exists, it follows that there is no serious interest in the Truth. We are far more fascinated by what we believe about the Truth than Truth itself.

It's odd that it is thinking that distinguishes humans for every other life form yet we only think about our thoughts, believing them real. If intelligence is the highest achievement of nature and if it's only purpose is to stare stupidly at it's reflection, why are we so proud? Why do we keep telling ourselves that our narcissism is proof that we are indeed the Crown of Creation?

As proof of this strange phenomenon, I believe that all of this is an accurate description of the human psyche because I believe that my beliefs are True. If it's true of me and I am (as I further believe) perfectly representative of humankind, then it must be true of everyone. Hence the belief is justified. From this I can reasonably conclude that any disagreement is both mistaken and perverse.

All human reason is likewise diluted by this inescapable circularity and there is no remedy. As long as we continue to append reason to the necessities of our survival, we will continue to befuddle ourselves with the inevitable contradictions reason creates. Stranger still, the products of our reason directly diminish not only reason itself, but our survival. While we trust in the utility of reason, we employ reason unreasonably, to denigrate, diminish and destroy those our reasoning has de-humanized.

Revenge is a good example. If someone kills your brother, you are justified, through reason, to kill him (or possibly, her). What's odd is that it isn't the act of murder that offends but, rather, who is murdered. If I believe that murder is wrong then it's the murder I condemn, regardless of who the victim might be. If I kill my brother's murderer then I am saying, in effect, that killing doesn't bother me or, more directly, it's ok to kill the “right” people. Now we can layer all manner of clever exceptions over any prohibitions on murder, disguising it as best we can, but the underlying logic exposes the fallacy.

What this means is that reason is indifferent to how it's applied; it can “prove” a fallacy while simultaneously disproving it's own proof. It depends on how deep you want to dig. Most of the time we stop well short discovering the weaknesses in our own reasoning. We will prefer that reason substantiate what we wanted to be true before we even thought about it. If the reasoning we prefer to accept more firmly establishes our opinions, we are satisfied to stop there. We are reasonable only to a point.

Some of us become very attached to some point of view or other and we are comfortably certain that reason is on our side. If that point of view is threatened, we trot out our tried and true arsenal of “facts” and “proofs”, the citations of Great Thinkers, all the arguments that have seemed to work before and circle the wagons, ready to do battle. At some point this defensiveness transcends mere intellectual assent and becomes, belief. We have invested our reason with emotional content and what we believe becomes who we are. Now we mutate from a marginally functional rationality to a dangerous and deadly intolerance.

While some will argue that this phenomenon only affects those defending this or that religious dogma, it is, alas, universal. Everyone falls prey to their own zeal. One of the most obvious and most often occurring manifestations of this grim mutation is Patriotism. The sure and certain belief that one's group is so precious and so worthy and so nearly perfect that its defense can justify any measures is one of the mostly deadly beliefs we humans have yet devised. It infects us all, all the time and it has nothing to do with religion.

What plagues us is not the other guy, it the other guy's beliefs and what we believe about those beliefs. These beliefs spring from our disdain for following our reasoning through to wherever it may lead. Are we just too lazy to do the work or does the world we've created reward our quiet conformity and punish our dissent? Maybe there is just no payoff to honest reflection and the pursuit of Truth. Odd that we honor those who go off into the desert seeking enlightenment, calling them righteous ,yet we ignore anything they may have to say. Could be that we prefer them in their deserts and their monasteries and their ragged retreats,quaint symbols of things we'd rather not think about.

What does all this mean? Is it even important? Is anything different even possible? It might be a worthwhile use of our reason to at least wonder about it.

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