Monday, December 24, 2012

The Heart of Christmas and Capitalism

Christmas has many meanings, but I want to suggest a human-centered celebration. It was originally based on Pagan celebrations, and later adapted by Christians to commemorate the birth of Jesus. To the detriment of many, Christmas has turned into a capitalistic fiasco. In many households, gifts are expected and received as a normality. I know many people who feel obligated to buy gifts for people they care for, and even feel anxious about not finding the perfect present.

Personally, I don't like buying gifts under capitalistic obligation. It is a distasteful thing to buy a present out of such feelings. For me, the heart of Christmas is the celebration of humanity in its pulchritude. It is not a time to reflect on the evil deeds that plague the world, but a time to reflect, with optimism, upon human relationships. 

Capitalism is the enemy of many endeavors. Anyone attempting to settle down to a joyful Christmas dinner has the thought of capitalism bludgeoning at the door of their consciousness. It is a sad fact that many civilizations depend on this economic system. This, I believe, is why many spoiled, rotten children open their gifts with great grievance when they receive something not wanted. Can they not see that even the most hideous capitalistic commodity that they receive is coveted by the world's poor? The plague of capitalism infects even the most innocent minds.

So, I will make it my personal mission to not dwell on unimportant things. Religious aspects are just leftover traditions of the past and nothing more. The modern approach to Christmas requires much mindfulness of the relationships that we cherish. I am trying my best to not let anything else, whether it be capitalism or religion, distract me from the true meaning of Christmas.

Let's celebrate and enjoy the bountiful goodness.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

When Tragedy Strikes, Humanism is What is Needed

I'm sure I do not need to go into the exact details of yesterday's tragic murders in Newtown, Connecticut. The event put a huge question to the fore, namely, how should one respond to tragedies? Indeed, I have personally taken a lot of criticism for my views, which is to be expected from people who do not understand my way of thinking. I make the point that many people, living in the individualistic society such as this one, politely "turn the other cheek" in response to prayer, if I may use such a phrase. No matter how much I agree that everyone has their own right to their own religious practices, prayer is, at best, the second best choice to respond to such unfortunate circumstances. Why pray when there are more effective tools available to quell your own suffering?

It is the humanist's task, during such grieving times, to equip those who suffer with the means to eliminate such dark and depressing thoughts. Anything else - anything that does not directly impact the suffering - is useless.

To our great benefit, the Stoic school of philosophy has built upon Epicurus' timeless view of death and dying. Epicurus thought that there exists either pain or pleasure, and death does not involve any physical pain. Thus, he concludes that death is nothing to us. Mark Twain seems to resonate with Epicurus when he supposedly wrote, "I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not the slightest inconvenience from it." This is the sort of revelation that can, with much contemplation and practice, completely dissolve any sense of fear and grief when the inevitability of death surrounds us.

Stoicism has taken Epicurus' wise views and put them into practice. Seneca is known for his consoling letters to his friends, guiding them to forget their fears of this strange, mysterious thing called death. Marcus Aurelius held this view also, and even Spinoza expounded on it much much later. The bottom line is this:

It is human nature to respond to death with fear and anxiety. But death and the pain associated with its process is relatively short. If the pain stops in the event of death, then suffering is quelled. If suffering is quelled, then why view death as painful and emotionally hurtful? 

Of course, this is easier said than done. I have put these wise ideas into practice and can attest to their usefulness. My grandma passed away recently, and philosophy has molded me into a strong individual that can seem to take on any impossible task with more confidence - even a death of a loved one. She lived a long, fulfilled life. What more could I ask for? I would feel a strange sense of guilt if I responded with childish thinking.

So, when these tragedies happen, we should not merely pray for people. We should teach people how to fish so they can catch fish for themselves. We should lead them to their own inner strength instead of depending on outside forces to do their consoling for them. This, in my opinion, is much more productive than laziness. We should do this as fellow human beings - help the suffering brother or sister in a time of need.

If anyone seems to stumble upon this blog who has been affected by the shootings in Newtown, I express my utmost condolences. I do not, like many others, claim to have a omniscient, all-benevolent being on my side. All I have is myself and those many wise people who have lived before me. I do hope this is enough.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Bit of Jesus, Alan Watts, and Reality

As an orator, Alan Watts is mystical and unforgettable. Listening to his talks are very difficult for me because I always seem to get lost in his mellow voice. His ideas, moreover, are also extraordinary. A introspective practitioner of Zen Buddhism and very knowledgeable about all religion in general.

As I was driving home from school, I listened to his commentary on Jesus. In a speech recorded as Jesus and His Religion, Watts notices a "good news" that transcends most petty, immature beliefs about the text:

"The real gospel - the real good news - is not simply that Jesus of Nazareth was the son of God. He was a powerful son of God who came to open up everybody's eyes to the fact that you are too. This is perfectly plain. If you go to the tenth chapter of St. John, verse 30, there the passage says, 'I and the father are one.' There are some who are not intimate disciples around and they are horrified, and they immediately pick up stones to stone him. [Jesus] says, 'Many good works I have shown you from the father, and which of these do you stone me?' They said, 'For a good work we stone you not, but for blasphemy because you being a man make yourself God.' [Jesus] replied, 'Isn't it written in your law I have said you are Gods?' He's quoting the 82nd Psalm..."

He observes a more subtle profoundness to what Jesus said. Watts notices that Jesus,  makes himself - and all others - Gods. They are Gods in the sense that they are the sole controllers of their personal subjective reality.

What insight. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Happiness Envy

When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstances, revert at once to yourself, and don't lose the rhythm more than you can help. You'll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep on going back to it. -Marcus Aurelius (Meditations Bk. VI, XI.)

Envy is a widespread human emotion, and has quite a broad range; it arises from small, petty observations (jealousy of another person's luck with green lights on a busy street) or from more outstanding realizations (envy for another's financial success).

Recently, we watched the film 13 Conversations About One Thing in my philosophy of happiness class. It was a very interesting movie, and artfully filmed. The film focused on a group of people who had varying definitions about happiness and how it is achieved.

One character stood out. Gene English is portrayed as an insurance company manager, who is constantly under the extreme stress involving his drug-addict son. He has an unhappy demeanor, and this is displayed in many dialogues with different characters. Perhaps the most interesting observation is his seemingly envious attitude toward one of his co-workers, Wade Bowman. Wade's character is exactly the opposite of Gene; he has a generally happy attitude and laughs and smiles often - some of the typical signs of contentment. But Gene is so encumbered with chaotic life circumstances and unhappiness that he is openly jealous of Wade's happiness. In one point in the film, Gene, seemingly purposely following his agenda to avoid happy people, lays off Wade.

This brings up an interesting difficulty in attempting to define the nature of happiness. Of course, many philosophical schools (including the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius or the zen practices of D.T. Suzuki) attempt to distance the self (ego) from the lived circumstance. But, technically, the lived experience is not the same thing as another human being. Such philosophies realize the need to distance the self from the environment, but largely seem to ignore the jealousy that is bound to arise from one who experiences a less fortunate life excerpt than another who experiences advantageous standings.

The conflict is apparently epistemological in nature, for it deals with the realization of the more prosperous circumstance of the other person. Interestingly, envy seems to have nothing to do with actually perceiving the advantages of another (as in Gene's case with Wade). Let's take the thought experiment of the two prisoners. Two prisoners are serving seperate life-sentences for some extreme crime. Both prisoners are in solitary confinement and cannot, in any way, perceive one another; both have been in confinement for a considerable amount of time. Tiresome and isolated from human contact, the inmates sit alone. One of the prison guards give one of the prisoners a battery-powered radio so he can listen to the radio while serving his time. When the guard reveals to the second prisoner that he had given the other inmate a radio, he will surely become infuriated with intense envy for the other prisoner. No perceptions were made for this result. All that was needed to create envy in the second prisoner was the fact that some sort of existential injustice has occurred. This does not sit well with him.

In the thought experiment, no perceptions were made by the envious prisoner. It is also interesting to note that he would not feel envious if the other prisoner did not exist. If the guard laid the radio in an empty solitary cell and then told the prisoner of his actions, the prisoner would not feel envious. So, it is reasonable to conclude that certain feelings of happiness could become affected by the observable advantages of others.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Spiritual Misinterpretation

When I think about my past religious experiences, I oftentimes find it pleasing to reminisce about those "deep" experiences of my evangelical Christian faith. Numerous worship concerts and revivals come to mind, with the deeply spiritual and emotional atmosphere. Many of the gatherings openly appealed to the emotions.

And I still remember the warm feeling. We all remember the warm feeling.

I think a sort of spiritual misinterpretation happens when the practitioner experiences such circumstances. Modern neurology has seemed to prioritize studies that deal with the interaction of brain chemicals, and some progress has been made on spiritual experiences. It seems plausible that religious experiences involve very complex interactions with different areas of the brain. (Check out NPR for a general overview of some of the discoveries and questions.)

The apparent misinterpretation arises when the subject mentally classifies the said neurological experience as a truly religious spiritual experience. A "spiritual high" results from very emotional, elaborate experiences in religious context. Also, it strengthens cultural religious interactions between the subject and the environmental context of their upbringing. It has the effect of solidifying the religious practitioner's bond with the certain cultural religious memes, as Richard Dawkins would say.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Daniel Haybron's Affective Ignorance

Daniel Haybron
Danie Haybron's book The Pursuit of Unhappiness: The Elusive Psychology of Well-Being includes many new aspects of happiness. I must admit that I have never really thought about happiness in such detail before my philosophy of happiness class. For this, I am very grateful for enrolling in it. My journey as a student of philosophy would remain in many ways all the more incomplete.

Near the beginning of chapter 10, Haybron provides a definition of affective ignorance. He claims that "Our powers to assess our own happiness - specifically, our affective states... are weaker and less reliable than we tend to suppose" (200). Affective ignorance manifests in "... two sorts of epistemic failure" (ibid.):
  1. Ignorance about our past affect. (Past affective ignorance)
  2. Ignorance about affects we are currently experiencing. (Present affective ignorance)
I specifically want to address past affective ignorance, for reasons I will explain. I seem to be well-attuned to reflecting upon past affective ignorance because of my lifelong diagnosis of panic disorder. (For those of you who do not know the potentially devastating symptoms, check out this link.) It seems rather paradoxical that I can write about past affective ignorance and still classify it as such. However, I will attempt to keep true to Haybron's definition.

My reminiscence of my past experiences were brought about when Haybron writes about the negative impact of distressing emotional states: "Presumably being tense, anxious, or stressed detracts substantially from the quality of one's experience, even when one is unaware of these states" (203). My panic disorder, in past instances, definitely brought about this detraction of my experience. Now that I have matured and have learned to cope with the symptoms of my disorder, I can now reflect on how they negatively affected me in the past. I felt alone and fearful, wasting away in my thoughts of self-pity and restlessness. Even after I was officially diagnosed at the age of 8, my realization of my disorder did not seem to have any major effect on how I experienced the pains of anxiety.

I now know, after quite some time, that my experiences of panic drastically took a toll on my experience of happiness and contentedness. I realized that pity is not promised to those who share such ailments as mine. The ability to overcome my distress, I later discovered, depended on my own perspective of life. Happiness seems elusive only to the extent in which someone fails to adhere to perspectives of positivity.

Easier said than done. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Appreciation, Not Thanks

I was stunned by the insight of one of the callers on the most recent Thinking Atheist podcast. The podcast was entitled "The Elephant in the Room," and it dealt with the topic of how some people might be confronted by religious family members over Thanksgiving dinner. Philosophy has made me resonate with certain profound perspectives, and I felt the need to publicly share this one. The person called in to the podcast, and claimed to be a transsexual who has been totally isolated from his fundamentalist family.

Even though his background story was very moving and dramatic, I do not wish to go into details about his struggles with his Christian family. (I very much recommend listening to the podcast. The caller starts talking around the 25 minute mark.) Rather, I wish to focus on one of his claims he discusses during his call.

After he introduced himself as "Diana," he said these words:
"Personally... during Thanksgiving, I'm trying right now to build my worldview as appreciation rather than thanks... as soon as you say 'thanks,' the deity pops up. Rather, I like to look at it as 'here is my universe, here is my world.' There are good things here and they have value. If there is someone responsible for those things being there, I can thank them. If there is no one responsible - for example the beauty of a sunrise - there is no one responsible for that; I can simply appreciate that and find the beauty and value in it" (emphasis mine).

This is the sort of insight that makes my jaw drop in amazement. I feel that his message can be simplified by the combination of two of Marcus Aurelius' many astounding aphorisms:

"Everything is brought about by nature, not by anything beyond it, or within it, or apart from it" (Meditiations Bk. VI, 9).


"Some things are rushing into existence, others out of it. Some of what now exists is already gone. Change and flux constantly remake the world, just as the incessant progression of time remakes eternity. We find ourselves in a river. Which of the things around us should we value when none of them can offer a firm foothold? Like an attachment to a sparrow: we glimpse and it is gone. And life itself: like the decoction of blood, and drawing in of air. We expel the power of breathing we drew in at birth (just yesterday or the day before), breathing it out like the air we exhale at each moment" (Meditations Bk. VI, 15, emphasis mine).

Nature brings forth everything, and everything exists for a fleeting moment. I feel appreciation for those people who offer me a firm foothold, even if it is just for a brief, unresolved time. What else could get me through my inner troubles? Who else could pacify my inner turmoil?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Challenge For U.S. Citizens

I must apologize in advance. This week has been a frustrating week for me. Yesterday, I posted about my personal frustrations with human rights. Today I feel the need to vent about a particular qualm I have with politics, even though the recent presidential election has already passed.

Of course, politics itself is a circus of rich, greedy white guys (and sometimes girls, when allowed). It does not take any special power to notice this blatant fact. Anyone who has access to a computer, which is basically everyone in this nation, can "Google" the political system and observe the travesty for themselves. There is no excuse for ignorance, and there is no need for me to dwell upon this.

Back to the point. Every major election involves the bickering concerning liberal and conservative values. Most "liberals" vote unquestioningly for the Democratic party, while staunch "conservatives" unhesitatingly vote for the Republican party. People are too complacent with their inculcated views.

Such dedicated liberals and conservatives might object by claiming that the Democratic and the Republican party adequately represent their view of the issues. This is not always the case. Candidates can easily concoct subtle, nuanced viewpoints within parties that will have overwhelming influence on how they run in office.

So, I am challenging the citizens of the United States. I challenge them to think about their issues independent of party identification.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Frustrating Nature of Human Rights

I figured I should write-out my thoughts concerning human rights. I see human rights as a universal law/code that is inherent and inalienable (ideally). It applies to all human sentient beings (animals could be included, but I am strictly addressing humanity). It is indeed the definition described in full inside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

The frustration results because most evildoers remain unaffected after they violate human rights. The responsibility of the United Nations, when formed in 1948, was to quell any such violations. They focused, with the holocaust still fresh on their minds, mainly on the cessation of genocide within national states. Even to this day, this seems to be the mission statement of the U.N. My mind tumbles to the sands on a desolate beach, angered by the viscous waves of injustice.

Genocide and such violations are still occurring, to the dismay of humanity. Some recent examples include the savage genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda, and the still occurring cleansing of Muslims from the majority Buddhist state in western Myanmar.

Something else frustrates me about these issues: there is such a vast number of Americans who do not know about these issues. We live in a society that favors and seems to encourage cerebral laziness. There is no excuse for citizens of such "modern" technological societies like ours to remain in a selfish bubble of separation between the favored and the less-fortunate.

There are no excuses now. Me must fight for justice and we should demand that it is pursued. Those who stand to oppose it, if they do not alter their ways to live in harmony with others, should be eliminated from the face of the earth as the last and necessary resort.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Plans That Keep Me Going, Quite Frankly

There I sat, pondering John Keke's thoughts. "Happiness requires the satisfaction of many important wants," he said.

What do I want in my life? I focused on this question.

Well I do have plans... goals. 

What plans and goals?

To be... successful. 

That's what it seemed to come down to: I will be happy once I achieve the things I set out to achieve. 
The revelation must be true for every rational being, for what would we call such a person who achieves no product of intelligence process whatsoever? They cannot sustain happiness; this category of person leaves no trace of their personality to withstand time - he fails to induce any profound ripple upon the canvas of the universe. I find this quite depressing.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Success and Attitudinal Happiness

Happiness is something that is the subject of many contemporary philosophers. A deeper understanding of the abstract concept results from different "blueprints" of its nature. John Kekes, in his paper boringly entitled Happiness provides a notable dichotomy between two fundamental aspects of happiness.

Firstly, happiness involves episodes of one's life. The episodes are "... satisfactions derived from what one does and has" (180). The second aspect, and the one that I want to address here, is the attitudinal portion of happiness. "The attitude," Kekes writes, "is satisfaction with one's life as a whole" (ibid). But the nature of the attitudinal conception reveals something that might be a bit controversial about the way he idealizes happiness.

In attempting to elaborate more thoroughly about attitudinal happiness, Kekes writes
The attitudinal aspect of happiness is more than a succession of satisfying episodes. For the attitude requires that the significance of the episodes be appraised in terms of one's whole life... The episodes may be goals achieved, obstacles overcome, experiences enjoyed, or just a seamless continuation of the approved pattern of one's life (ibid).
So, the attitudinal aspect involves observing attitudinal dispositions intermixing with episodic ones. However, this conception seems heavily based on the completion of personal successes (Kekes affirms this by discussing life plans further in the reading). This might be controversial in some circles of liberalism because many believe that people are so extremely diverse, and that all one has to do in order to be "successful" is to practice copious amounts of public individuality, which oftentimes comes off as foolishness.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Logic: God's Enemy

I am intrigued by the theistic/atheistic debate. I am planning on someday writing/publishing a logical proof that God does not exist. This is just one of my rough sketches of what is to come. Specifically, I want to address the invalid reasoning that goes into the intelligent design argument. The argument can be summarized by William Paley's assertion: 

. . . when we come to inspect the watch, we perceive. . . that its several parts are framed and put together for a purpose, e.g. that they are so formed and adjusted as to produce motion, and that motion so regulated as to point out the hour of the day; that if the different parts had been differently shaped from what they are, or placed after any other manner or in any other order than that in which they are placed, either no motion at all would have been carried on in the machine, or none which would have answered the use that is now served by it. . . . the inference we think is inevitable, that the watch must have had a maker -- that there must have existed, at some time and at some place or other, an artificer or artificers who formed it for the purpose which we find it actually to answer, who comprehended its construction and designed its use.¹

According to The Power of  Logic (2009), my textbook for formal logic, it describes formal fallacy as "... an error in reasoning that involves the explicit use of an invalid form" (147). The invalid form that Paley uses is known as the fallacy of affirming the consequent. This invalid argument form can be summarized thus:

      1. If A, then B.
      2. B.
So, 3. A. 

 This argument is fallacious because it asserts an unwarranted, unsupported conclusion merely because the person assumes that if the effect exists, the cause automatically exists. In order to understand this fallacy in respect to intelligent design, I will symbolize the argument as it is commonly seen in religious contexts:

N = Nature is designed by God, D = Things have design in nature,

      1. If N, then D.
      2. D.
So, 3. N. 

As we can see, saying that nature is designed by God is a fallacious assertion in this argument. The assertion comes out of thin air.

¹ Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, Collected from the Appearances of Nature (1802).

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Unhealthy Emotions

Buddhism, as opposed to many western philosophical traditions, has an elegant way of describing and labeling harmful emotions. In an article entitled Buddhist and Psychological Perspectives on Emotions and Well-Being (Ekman et al.), two Buddhist practitioners (Ricard and Wallace) describe the ailments of three particular emotions.

First, they address craving:
Craving is concerned with acquiring or maintaining some desirable object or situation for "me" and "mine," which may be threatened by "the other" (61).
The quotation marks may confuse someone who has not been exposed to Buddhist thought or teachings.  Buddhists think that the root of all the confusion and existential conflicts result because people are quick to objectivize (if I may invent such a word) their own personal experience within the confines of reality. Craving, as defined by the authors is afflictive because it gives rise to anxiety, misery, fear, and anger. But, more specifically, craving "... falsely displaces the source of one's well being from one's own mind to objects" (ibid.). What good is the mind if it is so easily swayed by things external to it?

The second unhealthy emotion is hatred:
... hatred... is driven by the wish to harm or destroy anything that obstructs the selfish pursuit of desirable objects and situations for me and mine (ibid.).
The authors then go on to say that "Hatred exaggerates the undesirable qualities of objects and deemphasizes their positive qualities" (ibid.). They draw the conclusion that hatred causes the mind to observe external objects as the source of all suffering. Therefore, hatred definitely has the ability to sway an individual off the course of the peaceful life. People could become consumed in attempting to overcome those specific obstacles that cause pain.

Lastly, they identify the final unhealthy emotion, which is a bit more difficult to grasp:
The third, most fundamental affliction of the mind is the delusion of grasping onto one's own and others' reified personal identities as real and concrete.  ... people habitually obscure the actual nature of the self by superimposing on reality the concepts of permanence, singularity, and autonomy. As a result of misapprehending the self as independent, there arises a strong sense of the absolute separation of the self and other. Then, craving naturally arises for the "I" and what us mine, and repulsion arises toward the other (ibid.).
Where craving and hatred are described as unhealthy emotions that associate with objects, the delusion mentioned in this quote is mainly associated with other conscious beings. I am not exactly sure if this is the main point that the authors wished to express, but it is how I interpreted this last emotion.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Seneca's Prioritizing

It is always something enlightening when I receive insight into the priorities of philosophers; it allows me to see how they make decisions along with their reasoning. I believe it was Aristotle who said that people become accustomed to virtues through those who accurately practice noble virtues. It is good to have an example or an ideal to mirror oneself. I think that this goes for all other actions as well - not just simply finding exemplars of virtue. In the case of Seneca, I admire his ability to prioritize. In the modern age (especially in developed countries such as the United States), priorities seem to be grounded in personal pleasures and overly selfish well-being.

I recently finished Seneca's incomplete collection of letters entitled Letters from a Stoic (2004). His knowledge is so sublime and his aphorisms have the ability to open the gates of one's intellect. There are numerous passages that are well worth looking over and studying. Perhaps one of the most intriguing passages has to do with prioritizing things in one's life:

The man who does not value his wife or a friend highly enough to stay on a little longer in life, who persists in dying in spite of them, is a thoroughly self-indulgent character. This is a duty which the soul should also impose on itself when it is merely the convenience of near and dear ones that demands it. And not only if and when it feels the wish to die, but also if and when it has begun to carry out the wish, it should pause a while to fit in with their interests (184, Letter CIV).

This quote deals with one of the great existential problems that Seneca struggles with: the choice either to live or die. But the quote delves even further than this mere conflict. Seneca imples that the selfless character should die (or even live) in consideration of others. This profound insight, this prioritization of others, is the result of great wisdom and practice.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Conscientious Revelation

There is a stunning and insightful revelation that has come upon me recently. Most of the time, I pass and mosey on through my day's work with a routine. I sometimes fail to notice and attune myself to the various interactions with others. We all do it; we don't always make that effort to get to know - not just the person - but the moment of interaction between you and the other person.

This other person - this other conscious being who has been equipped with the same tools in which they view the world - seems like an anomaly in nature. Not just their sensual capacity is the highlight of this discovery, for even animals have the innocent and unreasoned capacity to view atoms in motion. The fact that this other being can reason is such a profound revelation in itself.

Current biological evidence seems to imply that no other organisms function with reason intact. Of course, when looking at the vastness of the universe, there is a great possibility that other beings will be discovered. When you notice this, do you not feel intense feelings of responsibility, pride, luckiness?

I think that this conscientious revelation has the ability to dissolve hatred for humanity. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Philosohpy at a Grocery Store...

This actually happened about a week ago, I just never had the chance to post a blog about it. I was manning my post at the counter of the deli. Tom looked up at me, and in great gleefulness he smiled just like he always does. He is not like me.

It's interesting to notice when people think differently than yourself. They might have a different way of reasoning about things or might talk about sports more than you do. But Tom is a very logical thinker- to the extreme. (So is my formal logic professor, on an obvious note). Tom is a mathematics professor for Wildwood Community College and he is very wise.

I do not think that I was ever logical or wise.

Tom knows I am a philosophy major, and he surprisingly likes to talk about ethics. One time we were talking about what to do about corporate corruption. But this past week, he actually told me a story that involved himself.

Basically, Tom was backing out of his parking space at the store and a woman drove up behind him and blocked him. After getting out of his car in great haste and befuddlement, Tom addressed the woman. He said that the woman was driving an average car with a child in the back seat. He said that the women asked him for twenty-eight dollars in order to purchase a ticket to see a distant relative.

After pondering the possibilities, Tom decided to decline her request and get back into his car. He also told me his decision was affected by the fact that he had pickpocket experience that involved him in Paris. The fact that the woman was heavy set did not add up to her being in need of any nourishment; and she was driving a car.

Regardless of the soundness of his argument, it is just awesome to actually take time to talk to someone else about ethical issues and situations. It lets me escape from the theoretical realm of books and enter into actuality.

"Philosophy actually exists in the world," thought I.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The Importance of Creative Intelligence

A person's identity is unique insofar as they think for themselves. For as long as there are numerous and diverse people, there will always be numerous and diverse life philosophies. The only thing that is standing as an impediment to this sort of creative intelligence is the robotic adaptation of someone else's philosophy. These people are like mimes. They cannot, for the sake of them, think outside of another's ideals, whatever they might be. University of Rochester philosopher Richard Taylor, in his book Virtue Ethics: An Introduction, describes this type of mediocre individual:

They are essentially people without personal biographies except for the events which the mere of passage of times thrusts upon them. In this they are like animals, each of whose lives is almost indistinguishable from others of its species, simply duplicating the generations before it... What it does, others have done and will do again, without creative improvement of any kind. Its life consists of what happens to it. And people who are like this have a similar uniformity. They do much as their neighbors do and as their parents have done, creating virtually no values of their own, but absorbing the values of those around them... You see these people everywhere, doing again today what they did yesterday, their ideas and feelings having about as little variation (235).

If life is a process, shouldn't one be able to identify different levels of progress? There is no progress in the lives of individuals such as this. They might as well be members of an exclusive religious cult. The minds of the frail live with no sense of creative intelligence. People will live and people will die, this is for certain. In the end, thoughtful and justifiable variation is seen as interesting and will most likely influence future generations.

Why live the life of someone who already lived?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

One Fine Day

This past Labor Day, Toni and I had a really wonderful time being immersed in Japanese culture. My sister Sarah, in her loving kindness, brought back some weekend passes to the Japanese festival at the Botanical Gardens. I found ourselves enjoying the change of scenery; our experiences drifted far east toward a country completely alien to ours.

And it was beautiful.

Anyways, after looking at most of the craft stalls and listening to the live taiko drum ensemble, we strolled back to the main entrance building to see a one hour lecture. I do not recall the speakers name, but she was a Japanese anthropologist. She gave a lot of autobiographical information, primarily focused on the fact that she studied in Kyoto for many years. Then, the lecture transitioned from discussing Japanese geisha to the differences between traditional dress and modern fashion. But, soon after, she began to discuss the many different influences of Japanese culture. She said something along the lines of:

"The Japanese are simple people and live life differently from many western nations. They maintain their focus on the circumstances instead of living in the past." She then started to comment on the different meanings in the conception of the common cherry tree in our cultures. And as if by some oracular event, she read a Matsuo Bashō haiku. It was a mesmerizing experience. The example she used was so perfect and proved her point. Regrettably, I am disappointed to say that I do not remember the exact poem. All I recall is that it was very profound to me.

Here are some of his haikus:

Occasional clouds
One gets a rest
From moon-viewing.

In the Cicada's cry
There's no sign that can foretell
How soon it must die.

Lightening -
Heron's cry
Stabs the darkness.

On my travels, stricken—
my dreams over the dry land
go on roving.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Aristotle's Eudemonia and Zen

Upon returning once again to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I was able to make some connections between Aristotle’s conception of eudemonia and Zen Buddhism. Being introduced to the Zen tradition recently, I am beginning to notice subtle connections between the eastern precepts and western styles of thinking. This is one of the joys of philosophy, mainly, to consider different belief systems and finding similarities between them. Of course, I am by no means a Zen master. For the sake of philosophy, however, I will explain my observations.
In Book I of Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle sets out to examine different forms of living. He concludes, near the beginning of the book, that there are three prominent types of life: that of pleasure, political life, or the contemplative life. After Aristotle blueprints the three ways of living, he attempts to clarify a common misconception about external sources of success. The example he provides is one that addresses honor:

… A consideration of the prominent types of life shows that people of superior refinement and of active disposition identify happiness with honor… But it seems too superficial to be what we are looking for, since it is thought to depend on those who bestow honor rather than on him who receives it, but the good we divine to be something of one’s own and not easily taken from one (Cahn and Vitrano 20).

Aristotle asserts that such external dispositions are unsatisfactory. The apparent vanity lies in the fact that honor is a title bestowed by others. This is the weakness of similar external designations; the subject has no control over such titles. It would seem that Aristotle would favor a source of happiness that proceeds from the individual. In this way, the subject has complete control of himself or herself. Happiness, in this view, would solely depend of the individual.
            Moreover, Zen principles imply this as well. Freedom does not depend on external things:

The term that Zen uses to express the idea of “freedom” is “jiyū” and it consists of two characters; “ji” meaning “self on its own,” while “” means “out of.” When they are used together as a compound, the phrase as a whole designates an action arising out of self on its own[1].

Nothing outside of the practitioner’s consciousness maintains control over the ego. The mind itself creates its own happiness as well as its own predicaments. In the end, it is up to the subject to interpret reality in complete freedom.

[1] Nagatomo, Shigenori, "Japanese Zen Buddhist Philosophy", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Bittersweet Prelude to School, Philosophical Musings

Summer, as always, seemed to vanish right in front of my eyes. It is like this every time the metaphorical, old-fashioned school bell rings to mark the beginning of a new semester. In some ways, it is a reminder that the tiring nights of homework and the thousands of words formulated and transposed on paper is about to begin once again. But in other ways, school means getting educated and becoming more acquainted with how the universe works. I am excited (and a bit anxious!) that school is in session.
Today, I read an amazing textbook introduction. The book is called Happiness: Classic and Contemporary Readings in Philosophy, and the introduction is written by Newcastle behavioral scientist Daniel Nettle. I really enjoyed his elucidation on the three levels of happiness; I have not encountered such an eloquent description of the stages. Nevertheless, I felt myself a bit critical of one of his statements when he describes Aristotle’s eudemonia:
 “There is no single thing that it feels like to achieve eudaimonia (that is, human flourishing), since everyone’s potential is different. Indeed, one of the problems of eudaimonia and related constructs is that it is not clear who is to be the judge of what one’s full potential is…” (x).
              It seems that, even though we cannot prove that a certain spike of eudemonistic characteristics designates our true peak of potential, we can make very reasoned guesses as to where this peak might begin. Obviously, there must be a change in lifestyle that cultivates such flourishing. The question is then, of course: How would you measure such a thing? In my response, I would have to say it is completely subjective, and only the individual would know when a certain lifestyle affects their rate of flourishing. This seems like it could be investigated further.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Death: A Coping Device for Anxiety

Type 1a supernova. A beautiful example of finitude.
Anxiety has the ability to affect the life of an individual that comes across its path. I have struggled most of my life with anxious feelings, mostly brought up due to new situations. They have seeped into my life in times of transition, such as beginning school for the new year or starting a new job. I have received intense therapy in my early years in life, which has allowed me to discover physical coping techniques. But, I must say, rationalizing anxious thoughts has helped just as much.

Ironically, death  has allowed me to create beneficial scenarios. Many of us fear death. Philosophers (since the Stoics to the modern existentialists) have tried to discuss and observe the natural event of death/dying; they tried to de-mystify and show how death was like every other life process. In a way, the thought of death is helpful to the anxious subject because it creates a worst possible scenario when one experiences an irrational, anxious fit. For example, when I started a new job, I was making a big deal about every miniscule detail, causing me internal panic. Then I thought about death. In death, the act of dying, the body ceases to exist; all pain and worry leaves the mind, and we go into a peaceful rest. If all goes wrong and chaos erupts, I just think to myself, "Feeling is what it means to be alive, no matter how much I suffer. Dying, the worst case scenario, puts an end to all suffering."

The comfort of this thought is unexplainable, but apparent nonetheless. 

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Affection Produces Perseverence

Gilgamesh and Enkidu fighting the monster Humbaba as told in the Epic of Gilgamesh (circa 1300-1000 BC).
My new job at Schnucks has taught me a lot about myself. In the middle of a slow day at the deli, when I am just about to go crazy as a result of boredom, I remember why I am working the job in the first place; I am working because of Toni. And this observation creates perseverance.

Perseverance to see to it that our goal is met.

I have always dreamed of moving out since I was about 16. Once I turned 18, I sort of put it into the back of my mind, focusing on paying for car insurance and my video game/musical equipment splurges.

I firmly believe in openly showing subtle affection to the one you love. Touch lets another person know of your presence, and creates a warm feeling inside the mind. A gentle brush of the hand; the soft balm of smooth skin.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Practical Zen Through an Analogy

I have been reading Christmas Humphrey's book Zen Buddhism (© 1968). Apart from his amusing name, he does something that not many commentators are able to do: show how Zen is practical and beneficial to the practitioner.

When comparing Zen to a swimmer who enters the sea, he writes:

First, there is the self and the sea. They are distinct, and though I approach the sea I am of the land and air and move quite freely. Then I enter the water, and immediately the way gets harder. It is more and more difficult to walk; I am pushing a vast and shapeless burden of water in front of me. I am of the land and yet of the sea, and whereas the one no longer helps me the other has not yet fully received me. And so I struggle, buffeted with the waves, pushed here and there, yet still unable to use the seas in which I long to submerge myself. I know the worst of both worlds and the use of neither. Then suddenly I swim, and the sea becomes my carrier; it is the world about me and my friend. There is no effort, no more tension between two differing conditions, no more fear. I am one with the sea and yet still the self that walked on the firm sea-shore (86).
This is an extremely useful analogy of Zen. The Zen practitioner is able to accept themselves in their current situations. When the swimmer was on the sea-shore, which is metaphor for the self, he is a separate object from the sea. But when he tries to mix the two, when he tries to walk into the sea, he discovers the conflict: he must fully accept the situation, and let it take hold of him. So, he lets the sea take him, unencumbered by the transition from land to water. Even though the swimmer was accustomed to the shore, he allowed himself to place his fears and and efforts behind him in order to go with the flow, if I may use such a phrase. The shore and the sea can represent any single transition in our daily lives - transitions that may cause fear, suffering, other inner turmoils. The situation will not change. We can only control how we experience them.

I am learning that circumstances are guaranteed. There will be beneficial ones and there will be detrimental ones; amiable ones, and tragic ones. This is certain.  Why not embrace life's circumstances instead of finding reasons to deplore them? All so easily said, but almost impossible to do. I am still progressing.
The Zen way of doing things is to do them. Just like that (87). 

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

My Life Without God - An Update

It has been about a year-and-a-half since I have openly admitted my disbelief. My life has expanded in many ways that I did not think possible when I maintained my Christian faith. In a sense, life has become free. There is no metaphorical "big brother" looking over my shoulder, watching my every move - waiting for me to "fail" as a human being. There is no more guilt, no more sorrow about my own actions. I am free to make ethical decisions based on my own understanding of the world and the way it works. Nothing could be more delivering.

In the midst of this reflection of my transition away from religion, one of Jean-Paul Satre's metaphors permeates my thinking:
If we consider a manufactured object, such as a book or a paper knife, we note that this object was produced by a craftsman who drew his inspiration from a concept: he referred both to the concept of what a paper knife is, and to a known production technique that is a part of the concept and is, by and large, a formula. The paper knife is thus both an object produced in a certain way and one that... serves a definite purpose. We cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper knife without knowing what purpose it would serve. Let us say... that the essence of the paper knife - that is, the sum of formulae and properties that enable it to be produced and defined - precedes its existence (Existentialism is a Humanism 21, emphasis mine).
This is the way, apparently, that God works (if he exists). An omnipotent, omniscient God knows the outcome, knows the destiny of each human being. Sartre believes that this view of life is parasitic because it makes us complacent to our current status. In this paradigm, there are no goals - just indifference and complete reliance on the "Holy Parent."

Sartre has convinced me and has allowed me to observe my own complacency within my life. I needed personal goals. Now, after I left Greenville College, and religion as a whole, my journey remains my own. I am not produced in order to function in a certain way; I exist to continuously allay my identity with my own standards and dreams.

It is the ultimate freedom. I am still feeling the liberating aftereffects. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Happiness as a Way of Perceiving

I have had conflicts in my life lately. I must say, as much as I wish it were false, my disposition is based hugely on my perception of a certain situation. We, as rational thinking beings, are free to perceive circumstances as we see necessary. Many people today are enslaved into thinking that circumstances themselves cause internal turmoil and are the sole instigators of many sorts of negative feelings. For example, person A definitively causes the despair and depression in person B. This way of perceiving the environment, while easy to accredit blame apart from oneself, is extremely detrimental. It places pressure on other individuals to act in a way that pleases ourselves. We cannot allow another person such an influential position.

I think it is necessary to reflect on one of the virtues of Zen. According to the Zen master, everyone has the ability to sit idly by and let the world pass by uninhibited by our own feelings about it. There is great wisdom in this admonition. Our subjective minds, our own personal conscientious attitude, is the sole attitude that we control. We must learn to practice perceiving within the scope of happiness.  Counting on someone else to act in a certain manner will undoubtedly end in disappointment. We should not allow ourselves to succumb to slavery of the attitudes and behaviors of others. 

This is the most difficult thing to avoid.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Early Riser

It's the end of the day, and just for kicks, I decide to reflect on all of the things I have accomplished throughout.  During the school year, I often think about all of the homework I have completed and happily celebrate internally. The contentedness just seems to take over and I feel, in that instant, my mind ease into a state of complacency. I even think that Toni is quick to notice these occasions. 

Sometimes, there will be days where I am overwhelmingly flustered due to my inability to accomplish tasks. I think I found a remedy! It's waking up early! I know, I know, some people might read this and scoff at the idea. "Why in the world would I give up my beauty rest?" But it seems to work, at least for me. Rising early usually led to more time to get things done. I think the transcendentalists were correct in extolling the usefulness of waking up early. 

I even reward myself with a frappucino from Quick Trip on most mornings. 

Hey, everyone needs motivation!


Thursday, June 7, 2012

Walking as Discovery

It is so ironic. Walking is so widespread. Most of us learn how to walk at a young age and we quickly get good at it. It then becomes impulsive; our strides become more and more refined with maturity, and it it eventually becomes second nature. We learn how to fall more gracefully.

Just like walking, some of us become so refined in living that we forget to take notice of our beautiful surroundings. We are flooded with the chaos of our particular circumstance, which results in our avoidance of any sort of mindful experience with the world. 

This is why I believe that hiking is a very delightful experience. It allows me to take in the beauty of life as I see it unfold. I also think that it teaches me to be mindful. I am really enjoying this discovery.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Illumination of Fiction

Fiction is a wonderful art. It allows people to analyze life in a way that is metaphorical, as opposed to approaching life with a serious, rationalistic demeanor. It does not, as much philosophy does, force anyone to think seriously as one would when they attempt to discover some scientific axiom. There is an ambiguity to fiction that is clearly noticeable and commendable. Philosophers, trying to understand reality with the best descriptions, scoff at ambiguous terminology when working in the seriousness of academic circles. This is the beauty of fiction; it frees you from reality, momentarily, and forces you to interpret the story subjectively, making the story relevant from your own perspective. Good fiction is artful ambiguity. 

I recently read some fiction books, freeing my mind from all of the diligent undertakings of a philosophy undergraduate student. It was a breath of fresh air. One of the books I read was The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. The book was interesting and thought provoking, even though the resolution of the story was completely foreseeable (as hinted at by its title). But the literary motifs in the story are very interesting. Probably the most distinguishable motif in the story was one that involved memory. The main character, Tony Webster, is often depicted in many asides telling us that memory often disregards past facts in order to satisfy our subjective emotions of the present. This is an interesting concept. It seems that every person could possibly think of a time where their memory has escaped them, and caused a lapse due to the distress of that particular situation. The lapse seems to pacify our minds; catharsis results.

The other book was a horror thriller by Charles Maclean, entitled The Watcher. I found this story surprisingly illuminating in an interesting way. The narrator, Martin Gregory, is a computer programmer who, out of nowhere, commits a very disturbing act (he kills his two golden retrievers and gives them to his wife as a birthday gift). From the very outset of this grotesque outburst, Martin is clearly mentally distressed. Throughout the story, he begins to make connections with fables of the past and concludes that he is the reincarnation of the protagonist of these myths. His unhealthy mental state caused me to think about how we, as humans, are guilty of making connections that are sometimes irrelevant or coincidental. Of course, most of us don't go to such extremes as the narrator. Nevertheless, some African tribes think that certain lesions to the skin is a sure sign of witchcraft.