Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Problem and the Mystery

On a radio talk show a guy was making the distinction between a mystery and a problem. A problem can be solved and its problematic nature resolved, but a mystery, he said, deepens and increases the more you try to fathom it. We know both these experiences of problems and mysteries.

Yet there is a different understanding of the Mystery that you hear from some mystics. This is the experience of the answer to the Mystery – such as the mystery of life - as being so obvious and simple as to be laughable because we make it complicated and profound. Some mystical insights into existence have the quality of letting go or surrendering that result in a liberation from the mysteriousness. The realized mystic says: “Being just Is,” or some such formulation of the insight. Laughter results when the mystic sees how it is that we, not the Mystery itself, that makes it all so complicated and deep. It’s all experienced as a cosmic joke; all that striving after an answer that is so ridiculously simple.

So another facet of the Mystery - which appears as the solution to it – is that there is no Mystery. The profound insight into how the Mystery is different from the problem can also be experienced as the greatest folly because the Mystery is really the easiest problem to solve. Simply don’t try to solve it.

That can work for some and not others. For others, plumbing the depths of the ever expanding Mystery is the solution, the solution that never solves the problem, making it a mystery.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Repetition Compulsion

I’ve noticed a repeating pattern when I try to develop my own ideas. After an initial inspiration and excitedly writing down the ideas they don’t seem so great. The inspiration that caused me to write my thoughts wears off and what I’ve written seems commonplace and uninspiring. Is this caused by a negative self-judgment or a later, more realistic assessment of the material?

It could be a realistic assessment of my work’s value. Maybe the excited moment of inspiration is an illusory overvaluation. While my ideas probably aren’t as novel or wonderful as they first appear, when I detach myself from the dullness that they become shrouded in, they usually seem to at least be an interesting addition to the topics they address.

Additionally, the devaluation that comes later seems too complete. A veil of dullness seems to fall over the ideas, as if they don’t matter at all. That seems suspiciously complete or extreme.

Why does this occur if it isn’t a realistic assessment of the worth of the ideas?

Is it just that I thought the ideas and that if someone else thought them I’d think they were interesting? That’s partially true because I do like the ideas more when I imagine that someone else wrote them and I’m reading them in some reputable source. But that was the case – that it was me who thought them – when I had the inspiring inspiration. Why not devalue them immediately? It still leaves unanswered what causes the later devaluation.

Examining the quality of the experience when the ideas are being devalued is important. The ideas seem old or already known. Maybe there is a generalized, positive valuation of the original. Since they are now old they are no longer fresh. So there may be an issue around originality. And I know I have that issue in that I always want to think of something original. I regularly think of the saying, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” which is a maxim opposed to and indicative of my desire for the original.

Or the later devaluation is a defense. By devaluing the ideas myself, through a feeling that they are dull and of no interest, I preempt their being rejected by others. I reject them first in order to avoid a rejection by others. But if that’s the case why isn’t the defense present when the inspiration and the initial writing occurs? Why not think they’re dull right after they are thought? Perhaps there isn’t time for the defense to insert itself. Before the defense has a chance to insert itself, the inspiration is felt and there is excitement, but after, there is the defensive protecting of myself by experiencing the ideas as dull.

But if they are not dull, why experience them that way? Well, it stops me from pursuing them, investing time in them and showing them to someone and risking rejection and disappointment. The veil of dullness is the conscious layer; underneath are the discouragement and a fear of disappointment. This anticipation of disappointment is in advance of the expected disappointment I will feel when my thoughts are rejected by others. And this is expected because of past experiences of excited assertion and a resulting lack of interest or mocking and the pain those caused. I learned not to try and to create my own disappointment, veiled in dullness, before it occurs. It is less painful to do it to myself than to have someone else do it.

So it’s hard to make a good assessment of the value of what I’m writing with this psychological condition occurring.

So how not do it?

Well, I can watch it occurring and note it so that it is not acted out unconsciously. Repeating the pattern unconsciously allows it to continue. By becoming more and more aware of it, it is loosened and other feelings towards the material are given room to occur.

I can also force myself to look at the written ideas and, with a simultaneous knowledge of this process of devaluation, work them over despite it until they ignite some interest.

These may work.

Predictably, this same process occurred with this piece. Now it seems old-hat, not worth more attention, yet initially it felt right and potentially of interest to others.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Examining Experience

It’s odd that there should be so much philosophical talk about qualia, sense-datum, raw feels and other names for the contents of our subjective experience and so little time spent examining them subjectively. Philosophers generally respect the methods of the natural sciences yet ignore a mode of examination of subjective experience which can afford a better examination of it. The method amounts to looking more closely. This is the method of mindfulness meditation in Buddhism. One sits still, closes the eyes and “watches,” experiences consciously or examines the arising and passing of thoughts, emotions or feelings and sensations. It may be objected that mindful examination of subjective experience is not a transparent or simple examining, but the same could be said for the microscope. The method itself is quite simple. Sit still for a longish period of time – longer than we normally sit still – and examine the contents of experience as they arise. The experience is one of seeing what is already there but more closely. We already do this in small doses when we check in to know what we are feeling. So why not look more closely for a sustained amount of time? It’s odd that a field with a strong empiricist tradition wouldn’t think to examine their subject matter more closely.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Grasping the Mind

Is there something curious about the fact of our subjective experience? Is it mysterious? Is it oddly immaterial yet causally efficacious? It can certainly look that way to us. Yet I think Rorty would say that it looks that way because of certain conceptual pictures or stories we adopt about the way the world is.

One of those stories is the scientific story of the world as essentially material or physical and the brain being one of those material things that creates the immaterial mind. Furthermore, causality works through the interaction of the material parts being in physical contact with each other. With this background story, how can the seeming immateriality of a thought or belief have an effect?

There is a way the world is constructed in our dominant worldview due to a philosophical and scientific legacy that causes consciousness to seem curious and uncanny. But it is experienced as curious and uncanny relative to that dominant worldview. The felt experience of subjective consciousness is affected by the contextualizing story we’ve adopted. It would look and feel different if we saw the historical causes of that worldview which divides the world in numerous ways – subject and object, mind and matter, private and public - before we even observe, examine and start reflecting upon our subjective experience.

So the brute, self-evident, direct looking at the objects of our internal world isn’t so direct even though it seems like it. It’s not direct because to look at something and perceive it requires a mentality that is already conditioned in various ways: it is infused with meaningful understandings through language; it has a reason to direct its attention; it has a directedness of attention; it perceives what is seen, identifying the thing seen as this and not that. While it feels like there is a “sheer having” of a pain, we can question whether it is “sheer” or unmediated.

We don’t have to doubt the having of pain. But do we have contact with it, pain, in its raw, unadulterated form? To say yes is to open an investigation into this basic datum of experience and perhaps to try to build a theory of knowledge out of it. Rorty would say that it’s been tried and we now know it’s better not to go down that unproductive philosophical road.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Immanent Happiness

An implicit assumption of mine is that happiness comes when you’ve achieved certain life conditions: a particular job, relationship, level of accomplishment or acclaim. Recently, though, while walking along the street on a sunny day I felt well up from within an experience of happiness. This is unusual for me and didn’t make any sense. It didn’t make sense because I assume that I cannot feel happiness unless I’ve achieved certain things. In my mind there is a strict cause and effect with the environment being the cause and my mood being the effect. Since the conditions for happiness are not in place in my life I cannot feel happiness. In addition, the goal of feeling happiness is a motivator for me to do the things I need to do to become happy. If I were to just feel happiness without those conditions that I know cause happiness being in place then that ruins my taken-for-granted belief system.

I should be pleased with this. “Thank God! I can just have the prize without the work.” But it seems too good to be true and it suggests that my years of struggle have not been necessary. That’s an enormous waste of time and effort.

But perhaps it was just a one off occurrence and won’t be repeated. Although, ironically, it may be due to my not pursuing happiness anymore in the way that I assumed one must try to achieve it: accomplishing some intellectual work that others admire. Maybe it’s a release from the strictures of a warped approach to living. That could cause great relief.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Molding Life

After completing an activity I sometimes don’t know what to do next and think “what should I do now?” This is not only a thought; it is also an experiential state. I’ve become more conscious of this experiential state and named it the “what-should-I-do-now” state. The state is characterized by my looking outside myself to find the next thing I should do. The phrasing is indicative of what the state is and means. It assumes that there is an objectively right thing to do next and that I need to find it now. It is an attempt to guide myself by external pointers rather than internal guides such as desires or needs. And it presumes that I need to be occupied now and shouldn’t just be unoccupied or doing nothing.

The “should” phrasing and the felt-experience presuppose a particular conception of life and the world. This conception is that there is an objectively right thing to do now and that I will progress in life - get somewhere, be somebody - by fulfilling that objective. For me, getting somewhere has the sense of making progress towards a goal of being rated highly by an external standard held by others. It suggests a worldview in which there are external guideposts which can show me how to discover my next action and how to live in general. So instead of being connected to subjective desires and feelings and following their lead without approval from the outside, I ignore my internal desires and try to achieve an image of what I should be in order to attain attention for accomplishing a goal that others value.

A quite different experiential state is that of “having an inclination” or “being drawn to investigate” or “wanting to know” or “just feeling like doing” whose character contrasts with the “what-should-I-do-now” experience. This experience is one of looking inside myself and discovering what I want and following that inclination. The doing that results is motivated inwardly and so has less of the quality of being forced to act. The idea behind this way of acting is being my own person. It suggests that one lives better by not living outside oneself.

Thoreau wrote, “Every path but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then.”

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Philosophical Being

There’s an odd contradiction in a recent book about Nietzsche. In Michael Ure’s Nietzsche’s Therapy we learn about the works of Nietzsche’s middle period. Ure contends that Nietzsche’s main interest was to create a philosophical therapy along the lines of the ancient Greeks who saw philosophy not as a detached search for knowledge but as a practice for becoming a person who lived rightly. The works of Nietzsche’s middle period are filled with acute psychological insights that presciently anticipate Freud’s psychoanalytic theories. Nietzsche is presented as a man with a path to real adult maturity. And it is a fine vision. But in reading the book I remember the biographies I’ve read of Nietzsche and remember how miserable he was in his daily life; suffering from both physical and mental torment. It’s a familiar occurrence. Thinkers who write about a vision of living yet give little indication about the actual living out of that vision. How is it accomplished? Do people who practice that vision actually embody the goal? What happens when they try it? Does it work?

Psychoanalysis certainly has a well described practice of change, but the results of that practice are highly variable. If we think of philosophy in the ancient way – as a practice of the self – then we should be interested in the nuts and bolts of making ourselves into the kind of person that our philosophy describes. I’ve found it very difficult to become the kind of person I envision and have employed, over the last 20 years, a variety of powerful practices of self-development. What we should want to know is: what happens in given cases when particular practices and philosophies are used day-to-day to effect self-change? But generally people are content to remain on the level of theory, describing interesting and attractive visions of the good life. This is where a philosophical autobiography would be useful; but not a person’s story of how their thinking changed over time, but a story of how their being changed over time.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Philosophy, Poetry and Psychoanalysis

From a review of books about Ezra Pound by Louis Menand in The New Yorker, 6/9&16/08:

Ezra Pound “did not believe that (in the words of the preface to “The Picture of Dorian Gray”) “all art is quite useless.” He thought that poetry had a kind of power. He believed, Moody says, “that ‘the perfect rhythm joined to the perfect word’ would energize the motor forces of emotion and will and illuminate the intelligence, and that the result would be more enlightened living.”

This is a way of conceiving of both philosophy and psychoanalysis. The right way to live arises from apt words affecting particular emotions and then the intellect. In psychoanalysis, the right interpretation at the right time triggers a feelingful experience and insight and a change in being and living. In philosophy - in the ancient conception - the right understanding leads not only to accurate knowledge but to right living.

And, regarding the theme of this blog, emotion is prior to the illumination of intellect. We are affectively disposed to experience and then conceive of the world in particular ways which are then made convincing to cognition through the effective arrangement of words.

But we don’t just start from a wordless emotional base which then determines our views. The above quote and our experience with our emotions suggest that the emotions are meaning-laden. As in Eugene Gendlin’s focusing technique the words and the feeling or felt sense are intertwined and each felt sense is linked to precise words. Apt words are experienced as just right; they hit the spot. Feelings are worded. The right words sit rightly with us.

Certain arguments appeal to us, they are appealing. They please our sense of what’s appropriate. We want them to be true. We find ways to defend them and can’t conceive of them being wrong.

Poetry can convey an overwhelming experience of truth and rightness yet that way of wording is far from the literal and scientific language which is supposed to be our best conduit to an accurate representation of things.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

McCain No War Hero

This stuff about John McCain being a war hero is very annoying yet seems to go unquestioned. Would we call a Soviet soldier captured and tortured in Afghanistan during their invasion and attempted subjugation a “war hero?” We should have every sympathy for the terrible trauma the soldier suffered and not wish it on anyone, but we should also acknowledge that people engaged in criminal and immoral acts, like the bombing that John McCain did in Vietnam and just being apart of an unprovoked US attack on another country, aren’t heroes. Even if the soldier is ignorant of what their country is doing – like most of the soldiers in Iraq – there is some measure of responsibility that they should be held to and not treated as sacred icons. And the population of the country doing the attacking and occupying should also share some responsibility, they’re paying for it (me included). Not as much responsibility as the leaders who lied us into the attack, but some.

In an odd way John McCain did the moral thing by giving aid to the enemy since "the enemy" had right on their side since they were fighting for their national liberation against an external aggressor (the US).

Friday, March 21, 2008

Humans, Animals and Morality

A pervasive prejudice embedded in our culture regarding our valuation of humans and other animals is that when humans act with horrible violence they are commonly described as acting like “animals,” or “beasts,” or “inhumane,” the latter implying that there is something not human about these acts. Yet immoral violent acts are unique to humans and not characteristic of animals. Animals don’t intend to do bad or good. It is only humans that intend and do evil. Our prejudice imagines a bipartite situation with the superior humans on top and the non-human animals below. When humans do very bad things, we imagine that they sink below the human into the animal. But this is not the case since animals cannot do bad.

The actual situation is a tripartite one. On top are humans doing good acts. Below them, in the middle, are the amoral animals acting morally neutral. And below the animals are humans who do bad. While humans doing good are above all other animals, humans doing bad are below all other animals. It’s a slur against non-human animals to call evil-doing humans “animals” and “beasts” because the animals and beasts are morally superior to the evil humans. An accurate situation in which humans act like animals is when we act involuntarily, as in accidents or infants who don’t know any better or people who have lost their minds. The deeply instilled prejudice is that humans are truly human when they do good but become mere animals when they do bad. The truth is that humans doing bad are still as wholly unlike other animals as are the humans doing good. Doing evil has nothing to do with our animality and everything to do with our humanity.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Constructivism's Implication

Here's a dense and condensed draft of a paper I'm working on:

I will describe an implication of a constructivist view of knowledge. A central understanding of most constructivisms is that knowledge is created rather than discovered. The key difference between discovered knowledge and created knowledge is that with discovered knowledge there is something – nature, the way things are, human perceptions, facts, Reality, rightly applied methods of knowledge acquisition, the final consensus - that we attain or gradually approach which acts as a guarantor and adjudicator of right knowledge. For the constructivist and the believer in knowledge as a creation, the one way things are is not out there to be discovered using the right methods of inquiry. Instead, the very idea of “a way in which things are” and “what’s out there” are understood to be social, linguistic and historical constructions.

An implication of a constructivist view of knowledge is that changing what causes knowledge to be as it is changes knowledge. The genetic fallacy states that the genesis or origin of knowledge has no bearing on its validity. But if there is no ultimate adjudicator of valid knowledge or if one cannot be conclusively proven to be operative, then whatever alters the causes of knowledge having the character it has alters knowledge. We might hope that certain ultimate adjudicators would act as the validators of knowledge whether they are the right rules of reason, the way the world actually is or the confirmed results of scientific inquiry, but, as these are constructed conceptualizations subject to various interpretations and philosophical critiques, they cannot act as ultimate adjudicators of intellectual disputes. Without an unproblematic, neutral adjudicator of knowledge claims, all causes of knowledge can affect the validity of knowledge.

One cause or determinant of knowledge is the arational commitments of believers. For many important issues in academia and daily life there are fundamental differences that rest on a believer’s assumptions, commitments or so-called “rational intuitions.” Many important convictions are not rationally adjudicable and so are due to arational causes. According to the genetic fallacy the psychological and biographical causes of a person’s beliefs play no role in the validity of those beliefs. But on a constructivist view of knowledge, since there is no ultimate adjudicator of validity in these disputed cases, the validity of a proffered piece of knowledge is affected by the psychological and biographical causes of that knowledge. A change in psyche or biography can alter the determination of validity by altering what individuals and, through accretion, groups deem valid knowledge.

If knowers cannot conclusively prove that their view is in keeping with what’s objectively true or right, then validity is a contingent affair affected by whatever causes knowledge to have its current character. If knowledge is constructed, if it is made and not found; then what alters that making alters knowledge. Therefore, whether it is rational argumentation, persuasive rhetoric, a moving experience, changes in social structure, or any other cause of knowledge, these all affect what we understand to be our knowledge.