Sunday, April 23, 2017

Be simple!

I went to a Trappist monastery once. I stayed there for some time. I talked to the monks. One of them was named Carlos. He was from the Philippines.

I asked him something like this (I can't remember the exact wording): "You monks have a direct spiritual experience, and experience of God. How can I have this experience. How can -"
He cut me off, and said, very loudly, "Be simple!"
I stopped. What did he mean?

He talked for a moment after that. He said some things. But that was the thing that stuck with me: "Be simple!"

Trappists are wise people.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

What's it good for?

So, if you ask a professional philosopher about wisdom or the good life, they will thrust their nose in the air and inform you disdainfully that philosophy isn't about being "wise" or any such rubbish. It's about dealing with a bunch of technical problems made up by academics so they could have a job. The professional philosopher does not care why they get paid, so long as they do. As the years have gone by, I have increasingly lost patience with that kind of thing. If you're a geeky analytical guy like me, that stuff is fun, but making a life out of it? No, thank you. Sure, people like Descartes and Spinoza and Hobbes were spending their time on obscure and difficult subjects, but there were reasons for it besides "I want to wear a suit and get paychecks, but not have a real job."

So what's philosophy good for? I could let go of the word, "philosophy," but I don't want to do that. Those ancient Greek guys in togas and the people who replied to them down through the ages were doing something important, and the people who assumed the title of "philosopher" around the turn of the 20th century aren't doing it any more. Perhaps an academic would ask me what I think that important thing is, and I confess I can't rigorously define it in a way that would be acceptable in your very prestigious department. But your attitude says everything, Mr. Academic. You want to go to conferences and get paychecks, and be around clever and hard-working opportunists like yourself - and that's it.

What's it good for? Well, being reflective is good, if you want to become wise. I'm not wise, but I think philosophy may help with that. It's the meaning of the word, dumbass: "love of wisdom." Academic philosophy has outlived its usefulness. You can do philosophy of science all you want, but the physicists still don't respect you. Neither does anyone else outside of your field, really. The clock is ticking. Give it 50 years, if that.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Genuine

What does it mean to be genuine? I guess it means unmediated behavior, not consciously planned, not an affectation. If I ask you to tell me your favorite food, and you respond by saying "I like stale cheeseburgers from McDonald's" in an attempt to be funny and ironic, then that's not genuine. If you reply, "I dunno, steak I guess?" and really mean (?) that, then you're being genuine. If I tell you to cut it out and tell me what you actually like, then I'm asking you to be honest, and honesty is connected to genuineness. The idea is to say something just to say it, rather than seeking a certain reaction from the other person.

There's another side to this, which is that a lot of people have, in their minds somewhere, this little box of goodies they like to think of as "The Real Me." There are certain sets of behaviors and opinions that such people believe to be authentically theirs. When such a person asks you to be genuine with them, they are assuming that you have a similar box of goodies somewhere, and they want to see what's in it. If you do not think of yourself as possessing such a box of goodies, then you'll be a little thrown off when someone asks to see The Real You. Many of these people approach this in a less than healthy way.

This is where it gets hairy. Social behavior is just that: social. You act differently around Friend A than you do around Friend B. Which one is more authentic? Trick question: neither. All of your social behavior is, in some aspects, a performance. Sure, there's such a thing as dishonesty, where you conceal your real intentions from the other person. But if you make your intentions clear, and the other person acknowledges that you are being honest, then what else is there to do? There is a turn of phrase, "You can't get blood from a turnip." You're a turnip, and they're trying to wring blood out of you. "Show me your box of goodies!" they yell, and all you can do is shrug helplessly and say, "There's nothing in here, man."

The same thing incidentally happens when people are asking you to display an emotional reaction when you're not having one. Someone asks, "How does that make you feel?" regarding something that doesn't have an emotional effect on you. "How do you feel about so-and-so?" they might ask, and you simply don't have any feelings about so-and-so, besides "Meh." Then you're caught in a dilemma. You can fake an emotional reaction, at which point they'll detect the fakery and ask for your real reaction, or you can honestly tell them that you haven't got a reaction, at which point they'll get angry at you for not having an emotional response to something they care about and begin demanding that you display some kind of emotion ("Show me the goodies!"). What to do?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Judgmental Pussy

A Judgmental Pussy (hereafter called a JP) is a common type among touchy-feely "empathetic" people. Not all such people are JPs, of course. You can be a touchy-feely empathetic type without being a JP. I have known several touchy-feely individuals, and only a few of them have been JPs. But it can be hard to tell which one somebody is, because the JP likes to pretend that he is just a sensitive flower who is not judgmental at all. Being passive-aggressive by nature, the Judgmental Pussy likes to act innocent. Of course the JP is innocent! You're the guilty one, not him.

The JP is usually a "he." A combination of (possibly suppressed) masculinity and over-sensitivity is part of what makes him who he is. Sometimes he has a tough-guy or sarcastic deadpan Oscar Wilde presentation, although he can't take what he dishes out and will become all kinds of butthurt if you turn it around on him. Those who know the JP know enough not to do to him what he does to everyone else for fear that he'll have a meltdown. The JP, you see, likes to think of himself as a suffering, persecuted martyr. He is a saint, after all. When people back down just to get him to shut up and stop throwing a tantrum, he will read this as validation that his righteous fury toward his oppressors was well-placed.

This all stems from the fact that the Judgmental Pussy is caught in an awkward dilemma: he understands the world primarily through his values (hence judgmental) and is oversensitive enough that you can never tell what he'll take as a slight to those values (hence pussy). The JP does not think of things as primarily true or not true, but relates by saying Ooh, I like that! or Ooh, I don't like that! in response to anything you put in front of him. The idea of not having an emotional response does not occur to him. He has an emotional response when he sees a rock, let alone a person. And he never, or very rarely, keeps that emotional response to himself, because there is nothing more important to the Judgmental Pussy than his own precious feelings. Never insinuate that you don't care about his feelings. That's worse than murder to a JP.

One reason for this is that the JP is a very, very special individual. Or at least, he thinks he is. This precious specialness can manifest in different ways at different times; lofty ironic detachment that finds everything amusing (or at least, everything you do); moral condescension that just wants to let you know that YOU ARE GUILTY by verdict of the JP; being arrogant, dismissive and supercilious when it comes to taste. The JP has to be special in order to avoid being bad, because if he applied the same standards to himself as he does to everyone else, he'd find himself to have flaws, and not being morally perfect is anathema to him. So he needs to come up with reasons to give himself exemptions, and the best way to do this is for him to be special.

You'll never succeed in calling him out on this, of course, because the Judgmental Pussy is a master of passive-aggression. He can wallow in self-loathing for days on end over his own minor misbehaviors, which conveniently allows him to avoid addressing any of his real problems and gives him an excuse whenever you point out that he doesn't apply his standards to himself. He'll be condescending and dismissive and smugly amused, or perhaps offended and taken aback, when you tell him what you enjoy, and if you ask why, he'll act is if you're the oversensitive one just for asking. The fact that he does this on a regular basis, that his constant needling is growing wearisome, does not occur to him. He's just expressing his feelings, after all, and God help you if you try to stop him from doing that. He'll never admit what he's doing, to himself or anyone else. "I'm sorry you feel that way," he'll say in nauseatingly affected tones of concern, as if his own behavior had nothing to do with how other people react to him. The Judgmental Pussy cannot admit to himself that "expressing my feelings" is not an excuse for being a self-indulgent little shit, and has erected a labyrinthine psychological edifice for hiding this fact from himself.

There is only one way to deal effectively with the JP, and that is to not deal with him. Cement yourself as one of the Evil Oppressors in his mind, a troglodyte with no taste for the finer things in life (like his feelings), a nasty horrible malicious hateful tyrant. This won't fix him, of course, but at least it'll make him go away.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Don't Help

If you spend a lot of time on certain pursuits, you may develop a conceit peculiar to reflective people. Namely, the messiah complex. You read Descartes, or drop some acid, or take a seminar, and you develop an image of yourself as some kind of soul-technician. Every boob who reads too many books thinks of himself as Socrates at some point. It's a stage one goes through. Some people are more obnoxious about it than others, and many of us get stuck there. I knew one individual who did a lot of hallucinogens and decided he was some kind of Cheshire-cat witch-doctor. Resisting the impulse to armchair psychology, I can confidently say that I do not feel guilty about avoiding that guy. He can't help me, nor I him.

Part of the problem is that the view of oneself as some kind of soul-technician or midwife of ideas is not entirely off-base. If you can help someone, then go ahead and do so. But it's not always your job, and you need not always look for the opportunity. It would behoove you to wait until such an opportunity smacks you right in the face, because at that point you know what you can do. Even then, though, you must be skillful in your approach, and by "skillful" I mean tactful, not ostentatious and wizardly. It's best to keep your mouth shut most of the time. Let your waters run still and deep.

All the same, there are a lot of temptations. People will try to get a rise out of you. "Alright, Mr. High and Mighty, what do you say to this?" The problem is that, if people already know how you think, and you try to back off, they'll read it as coyness and push harder. The only real way around this, I surmise, is to make a new habit of remaining quiet and wait for them to get used to it. They'll try to bait you, of course, and the only defense against that is to quell the ego enough that they can't get a rise out of you. Let them think they won. Who cares? It's not your problem. You don't have to help.

Another thing - if people think you are genuinely sympathizing, they will typically can the matador act, provided they're not abusive or in an extremely bad mood. This can be difficult if you're not good at expressing sympathy, even when said sympathy is genuine. You sympathize, but any attempt to say so is rejected as artifice. What to do from there? The answer is to re-assess your relationship with that individual, and decide if it's worth it to put up with their crap. If they don't accept your sympathy as-spoken, you're not under some injunction to convince them. You don't have to help.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Perspective

The limitations of human perspective are dangerous on two fronts. First, our limited perspective makes it possible for us to misunderstand the world around us. But that's the obvious danger. The less obvious danger is to over-correct and assume that, because our perspective is limited, there is no point in trying to understand the world around us. Nobody would say that outright, of course, but there are places where people subconsciously apply such reasoning. "You'll never really know, maaan." If it's not dangled in front of your face, it's a social construct or a useful fiction. One amusing instance of this is recounted by a contemporary philosopher:
"I once heard a Nobel-prize-winning physicist shout, in reaction to a philosopher's incautious statement that what elementary-particle physicists studied was 'abstract,' "A proton is a thing! Like a rock!"
-Peter Van Inwagen, Material Beings
(of course; since you can't see the proton, it can't possibly be a real, concrete object!)

There are multiple limitations to human perspective, but one big limitation is that we have a tendency to ignore the reality of things that are not immediate. Language gives us the ability to refer to what is not present and engage in complex abstract thought processes, but those abstract processes do not impinge on our day to day behavior unless we make them, and that takes a degree of mental fortitude that few are able to muster. "Out of sight, out of mind" - yes, and some of the most important things are never in sight.

Think of primitive humans, standing on a mountain and noting that the horizon looks curved. How many realized that the Earth was round and that they were standing on a giant sphere? A few, perhaps. How many realized that the giant sphere went around the sun and that the stars were each individual suns? Most likely none of them. It's like an ant on a tree; the ant can't even conceive of the tree, let alone see what shape the tree is or how big it is. Things much larger than us are every bit as invisible as things much smaller than us. The idea of a galactic supercluster did not occur to primitive humans for the same reason that neutrons and protons never occurred to them; once something is much bigger or much smaller than you, it may as well be in another world, as far as your perceptions are concerned. This does not stop bacteria from killing you, however. And it does not stop the falling tree from squashing the ant.

This applies to more than just physical size or time, although the difficulty in understanding the brevity of a nanosecond is similar to understanding the length of an aeon (or failure to understand the brevity or length thereof). It also applies to levels of abstraction, to processes that involve too many parts for us to understand in great detail. The ant on the tree can smell the pheremone trail left by other ants, but it can sense very little else. And we have trouble understanding things that, in addition to being bigger and longer-lived than w are, are also too complicated for us to compress into easy mental categories. Take the economy, for example.

Small cases are easy: if I sell you a bag of marbles, and you pay me five dollars in cash for it, we see exactly what went on. You gave me a slip of paper, which we can both see, in exchange for a bag of marbles, which we can also see. That one single isolated transaction is easy. It's one ant giving something to another ant.

Scale up to the size of an economy, and you will see a system that is seemingly impossible to understand. Economists can't agree on anything. They'll fight tooth and nail over how what economics even is, let alone how economies work. These are the very people who make it their business to study an economy, and none of them seem to agree on anything. We are the ants, and the economy is the tree; we are the primitive humans, the economy is the Earth. More poignantly, we are the ants and the economy is the colony, the society of ants that individual ants cannot understand. With apologies to Yeats, the ant cannot fathom the ant-mound.

(This is not merely an expose on economics. The economy is just a vehicle for the larger idea here, which is that we have trouble understanding that big, complicated systems are just as real as small, simple ones. The economy isn't anymore "fictional" than your body, the solar system no more socially constructed than your right hand.)

Nobody really knows, it seems, how an economy works, despite the fact that we all take part in it every day. The system involved is just too large; the ant doesn't know how it all goes together, but it still lives in the ant mound and does its work. I can't go to every store and every factory and every workplace and every bank account and take stock of them all in person in order to put it all together and figure out what's going on, but all of that stuff still impacts me. The result is rather amusing: I read the news and see people debating whether manufacturing jobs were lost to automation, or to outsourcing, or to general economic recession, or to bad policy decisions. Meanwhile, I work in a factory. We know that there are fewer manufacturing jobs than there used to be, and individual workers can tell you that they lost their jobs, but as soon as you attempt to identify trends and causes in a way that you can use for policy decisions, you find that you're beating your head against a seemingly insoluble problem. The individual ant can see other ants, but perhaps we can imagine an ant trying to understand how the whole colony works, failing miserably, and then getting into heated debates with the other ants about it.

This is all very amusing, but also dangerous. The danger of our limited perspective is that we have a tendency to simply ignore things that exist on a different scale from our own, or, even worse, outright deny that they're even real. It's not just a case of "I can't see it because it's too big." It's a case of "Nothing that big is real." Our primitive ancestors didn't understand what economies or protons or galaxies were, because those things were too large for our primitive ancestors to apprehend with their limited technology. We understand what such things are, but some of us deny their reality. No amount of social dogma could force you to deny that your body exists (I hope!), but it's easy to claim that something like gender is "socially constructed," especially once a lengthy process of academic jargonizing has sucked all of the meaning out of the word.

This is one of the big problems with human cognition; we have a tendency to forget that things don't need to be dangled in front of our faces in order to, uh, be real. The moon is there when you're not looking - and protons and economies are real even though you can't see them. It's as if one of those little imaginary ants I spoke of earlier were to stand on a tree branch and say, "You know, there really is no such thing as a 'tree.' Nobody has ever seen it, after all. Really, the 'tree' is just a social construct, a useful fiction that helps us navigate, to be discarded whenever it is no longer useful." Then, of course, the tree falls over and our imaginary ant is promptly squashed into nothing. That's one deadly fiction!

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Serendipity

Fiction

(I don't like this one very much, but fiction isn't my main thing anyhow - I just have these little literary effusions now and then. It has some neat stuff in it, but overall it's really rough.)


So I was hitch-hiking across the state a few years back, in the springtime when the trees are first budding and all of the Disney Bambi stuff is going on with squirrels and skunks and flowers blooming and singing rabbits and God knows what else. It was something I did when I had some time away from work, just to get some adventure out of life and have a good time. I had a knife in my pocket in case somebody tried to murder-rape me or whatever. I was by the road with some woods on one side and a ditch on the other side with an empty cornfield stretching away to a dip down into a shallow valley, those worn-down little hills we have in Ohio instead of actual geography. It was high noon, and under the trees on my side of the road there was some nice shade and it was a little cool there, with a moment of the briefest shadow.

Anyway, I was standing there by the road with my thumb out when this shiny luxury sedan pulled up and the window rolled down. My first thought was that some thirteen year old kid had stolen his parents' car because this guy looked way too young to drive. He was kind of chubby and smooth-faced, with dark brown curly hair and one ear pierced and this stupid grin on his face.
"Hey, need a ride?" he said.
"Yeah, man."
"Where to?"
"Wherever you're going."
He laughed.
"Hop in!" he said.
I got in the car and shook his hand.
"I'm Rene," I said.
"I"m Zach. You can call me Low-Key, though." he replied.
"Low-Key?" I asked.
"Yeah, it's what my friends call me."
"How old are you?"
He laughed again.
"I'm twenty eight, dude. I know, I look twelve."
"Cool."

We drove for a while. It was one of those places where the nearest running water had eroded the land into a series of small hills like a rollercoaster and this guy wasn't shy about breaking the speed limit. He really liked to talk.
"So I was on the highway once, and I see this mini van, right? And you know how they say mini-vans are always the slowpokes you get behind where, like, they do 55 when everybody else is doing 80? Well not this one. They were haulin' ass, dude. I mean, this fucker was doing at least 110 because I was doing 80 and he blew right past me like -"
He went on and on. He had these enormous blue eyes that lit up when he spoke, and he spoke rapidly and rambled and jumped around a lot and kept scratching his face erratically.
"And I'm talking to this girl who said she was in high school but she was fuckin' bangin' dude, like, tight as shit, I could break her in half. So I told her I'd just graduated and she buys it 'cause I look young, and this whole fuckin' time I'm thinking... It's a sin. God made these hot little high school girls and they pass these goddamn laws where you can't do anything... Just fuckin' with ya! I wouldn't ever -"
Overall he was acting a little bit coked out and a lot of the stuff he said sounded like tall tales he was making up, but he seemed safe enough and, speeding aside, he was driving pretty safely.
"So then I murdered the fucker."
I jumped. I had zoned out a little bit and hadn't heard the lead-up to this particular part of his story.
"Yeah, I killed him," he said, "Stabbed him. Sharpened a piece of wood, piece of mistletoe, and put it through his chest. They told me he couldn't die, but he died 'cause I used the mistletoe. He never had a chance."
I stared at him for a moment.
"What's the matter?" he said, "You don't dig?"
I kept staring at him. He started cackling.
"Just fuckin' with ya! I'd never kill anybody, unless I thought they'd come back to life or some shit."
I relaxed, a little.
"So, Low-Key," I said, "Where are you from?"
"Another world!" he replied. I laughed.
"Another world? Like, another dimension?"
"Yeah," he said, "Check it out."

My heart felt like an old vinyl record skipping.

We were driving over a field of stars. I don't know if it happened when I blinked or what, but we were in something that looked a little bit like outer space, but with these little white diamonds floating everywhere, and all around us it looked like those pictures they take through expensive telescopes with giant multi-colored nebulas, but these were moving and whipping around like the Northern Lights. And the space was bigger somehow, not just outside but inside of the car. It felt as if, when I moved, I was moving in more than one direction at once, like I had heighth, depth, width, and then a few other things I wasn't used to. But somehow, it all looked the same, all felt the same. I didn't notice that I had the extra stuff unless I really paid attention to it.
"What the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck? What the FUCK!?" I said. I was shaking. I turned and suddenly I wasn't in the car anymore. I was strapped to the seat, and in front of me was something at once terrifying, beautiful, and mesmerizing.

It was made of light and lightning, and different surfaces like the faces of gem stones warping in front of me, moving in and out of each other, interlocking like the gears of a grandfather clock, dancing in synchrony in directions that had no name. Below it was a wheel parallel to where the ground should have been, and the wheel was made of many wheels intersecting one another. A face emerged from the dancing hypnotic gemstone fires of the thing, a grinning mask like in the old plays. The lips on the mask moved, but the voice I heard came from the wheel, and it sounded like a room full of people speaking at once.
"Humans! You have always amused me, and confused me. You're delighting and infuriating." it said.
"What the fuck?" I replied.
 Something I could not see but still sensed somehow radiated from the wheel, and I felt a deep calm. It was a little like the time they gave me morphine in the hospital. My fear melted away, and I looked, astonished, at the thing.
"What are you?" I asked.
"I'm all sorts of things," it replied, "I'm the part of you that always wants to do something ridiculous just to see how other people will react. I'm those unexpected events in your life that change everything, the little nudge that tells you to try stuff like hitchhiking across the state for fun. I'm that fallen tree that blocks your path in the woods so you take a different route and meet someone who either attacks you or becomes your best friend later on. I'm probability and friction and randomness, fickleness and whimsy. I'm opportunity and serendipity."
"I see," I said, quite calmly, "And why did you pick me up just now?"
The flaming gem-fireworks involuted and writhed in something I recognized as analogous to a shrug.
"I felt like it. That's my only reason for anything. Also, I have a job for you to do. You don't have to do it. But I'll kill you unless you do it. So do it."
"What do I have to do?" I asked.
The grinning mask grinned more broadly, and the face came closer.
"I need you to destroy the world."
"What?"
"I said, I need you to destroy the world. There's a wheel that the sun rides on, and it's about to set for good, and a new one will come after."
"Why do you want me to destroy the world?"
"Because the world you inhabit, your world, is like an egg, and it's about to hatch. If you would accomplish your dreams, you must first destroy a world."
"How?"
"You have to go a little crazy. Not all the way. If you go all the way crazy, you just die, in the wrong way. If you just barely brush insanity, you'll die the right way, the right parts of you die. You've gotta lose your marbles, especially the ones that keep you weighted down."
Then I was looking at a silver bowl, full of white marbles. A young male child with curly blond hair appeared, thrust his hand into the bowl, pulled out a fistfull of marbles, and flung them at me. They disappeared just before they hit my face, and the gem-fire-thing returned, still grinning through the mask.
"Do you understand? Do you know what I want?"
"A little," I said, "But what if I get scared and don't do it?"
The thing began to change as a cloud of gemstones like those the thing was made of drifted into my field of view. As the cloud of gemstones drifted through, the thing lost each of its parts, and each was replaced by a new one, but the thing remained the same, and the same voice spoke.
"Every cell in your body ages, dies, is replaced. You've heard that fact a million times. Maybe you got stoned once and wondered how you still exist if all of your cells are different. You 'technically' aren't the same? Nonsense. But I'm not worried about technicalities. You're the same person you always were, and you know that. But every system - " (I understood 'system' as something like a person or a creature or a soul) " - comes to a point where it must either die, or become new. You and your world are at this point."
I looked around. The wheel that had been below the thing was now all around me. I was in the center of it and it rotated around me like an enormous hurricane, and the many-throated voice came from all directions at once.
"If you rip out the nave that unites the spokes, you have destroyed the wheel. There is no nave here. It can no longer be used as a wheel. If you can't use it as a wheel, then it's not a wheel. But still it turns all around you. It's a wheel that is not a wheel."
The world turned inside out. I lost everything. Each of my senses dropped out one by one. It wasn't silence, but lack of hearing, not darkness, but lack of seeing. For one moment, I was aware of nothing except that I was aware. Then I was back in the car, and it the car was idling in front of my house, and Low-Key was sitting there grinning at me.
"Just fuckin' with ya," he said, "None of that was real. You just went nuts for a second." The calmness was beginning to wear off, but I got out of the car when he asked. I turned to him before he left.
"What do you mean that it wasn't real? How do you know?" I asked.
"Well, I lied again," he replied, "It was all real, as real as anything else you sense. Do me a favor and destroy the world when you get the chance. Peace."
There was a bright flash that left a spot on my vision, and he was gone.