Thursday, September 29, 2011

More cathartic philosophical music: It's not meant to be a strain.

Bjork has the special distinction of speaking to me intimately through the intense emotional power of her music (especially live, Jesus). The powerfully emotional, raw and soaring way she sings has a lot to do with the impact the pathos of her music has on me.

This particular one has spoken to me since I first heard it on Vespertine in high school. It describes how unsettling and stressful it is to feel like you need to complete your day with as much care as you can, to accomplish every little thing from finishing your work to drinking enough water and sleeping a full 8 hours. It used to make me cry in painful but thankful catharsis because it was what I wished I could achieve - that acceptance that I CAN'T have the perfect day, because I'm not perfect and the world and other people aren't going to gracefully fit in with my goals for the day, or for my LIFE. But now I can identify with that internal tension/grief AND accept that unfortunate truth. It's how the world is and that's okay because I can still strive to make it through the day, and not think less of myself if I don't achieve every little thing I want to. Now it's empowering.

And another song off the album with a similar sentiment:

I had the same reaction: crying and wishing I could believe the encouraging words she directs at the listener who's crumbling under the weight of her own life and expectations for herself. And now I can listen to the comfort, cry or smile, and be comforted and empowered by the message.

So thanks, Bjork. In every way, you are one of the most beautiful women in the world, as far as I'm concerned. I love you and I wish I could let you know.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

More on "The Cave"

I've already shared this song and some of my thoughts on it before. I can also play it better now that I've been playing it longer than 3 days (like when I recorded my version of it), so I ought to re-record it. But anyway, I've added something to my understanding of it through talking about Plato in that there Ethics class I'm taking ("If there is no god, all is permitted").

I think the song is meant to be, or is at least often taken, as a way of describing hiding away as a reaction to life kicking your ass. It's about wanting to give up and hide away from life, and the need to somehow get out of the Cave to become strong and actually LIVE. And it adds the sentiment that we don't necessarily have to do this all on our own...the people we love can't PULL us out of the Cave, but they can hold our hands or offer a shoulder to lean on as we stumble out.

In the other sense of the Cave I'm now considering...when we're in that state of pain and self-delusion we CAN'T see the forms - not the Platonic ones, but "forms" in the sense of REALITY. Reality includes the world and people around us, what happens to us, what's best for us, what we really want, who we really are, and the more philosophical stuff too in terms of what we believe and how we see the world. So self-delusion can come about in response to depression and anxiety and self-hatred or disillusionment with the world - all things that can send us down into that Cave. It can manifest as feeling that we're worthless, hideous, whatever...that everyone is out to get us...that there's no hope and nothing good will ever happen to us...that we're powerless to improve our lives or the lives of the people we love...that we will suffer and be stuck in the same rut all our lives...all that good stuff. And seeing the world through that lens makes us turn the delusions about ourselves into reality; we tend to become the version of ourselves that we see, even when it's a deluded and fucked-up vision of ourselves.

So to see the world and be ourselves again, we have to get strong and get out of that Cave – once again, sometimes with help from others, if we're stuck in far enough and if we have people around us who know it and care enough to help. We have to get out and get our heads on a little straighter in order to see truth again, both “objective” (what we SEE as objective, that is...whether there IS objective truth is another story) as well as our own subjective “truth” such as how we generally see the world and ourselves, regardless of how others see it/us.

I'm not de-legitimizing what we see when we're in the cave as FALSE, that they're just silly lies we tell ourselves and delusions that we should just get over. It's true to us in the moment, which is itself someone who thinks it's very important to live in the moment and give it its due, I can accept that what we feel so intimately, even when we're fucked up and seeing things in a wonky way, IS basically true, even if it's only true TO US for a short time. But that truth doesn't reflect who we usually are and what we see and believe when we're in control and strong. We can only really be ourselves and live in our real world when we escape the Cave. But we kind of have to live in there from time to time...especially when our world and we ourselves make life really fucking hard for us, purposefully or inadvertantly.

So there's some brainfood for ya. Musical brainfood, even.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dear True Blood: So what the fuck, dude?

[A response to:]

I and a number of friends were pretty much irreparably emotionally traumatized by this week's finale of 'True Blood". I actually enjoyed and appreciated this season more than others (compared to last season's attempt to fit 300 different fucking story-lines into one season...good lord). But this last episode threw me through a number of confusion-hoops.

First off, I appreciate the occasional ballsiness of this show. I like it's willingness to show male nudity in mainstream entertainment, which is usually far rarer than female nudity (except when it's for comedic purposes...HAHA LOOK AT THAT TINY CHINAMAN'S PENIS IN THE HANGOVER). I like the violence, as someone who's into horror movies. But most pertinent to this episode, I like that it can kill a character without using a deus ex machina cheat to bring them back. This is also something I REALLY admire about Torchwood...they are fucking ruthless. No main character is safe, except maybe Jack and Gwen. To be fair, True Blood does do the fakeout-death thing a LOT, but the show really is a soap opera when you get down to it.

This is why I can accept Jesus' death, even though it made me simultaneously sad and pissed. I was angry because our only gay character had to lose his first and only healthy relationship on the show. And I was angry because Jesus was the only Latino character. But I can forgive all this based on the fact that I don't think storytellers in film and television NEED to keep a healthy number of minorities represented, and represented as goody-goodies. Audiences are becoming mature enough to understand that a gay character doesn't always have to be bad or good, and can be both like any other character. Many viewers aren't there yet, but we really are moving in that direction and I want honest artists to reflect that fact.

Jen presents an interesting view here. But I don't really agree with the significance of Tara's death as an example of a "sacrificial atheist." There are other atheists on the show, I believe, including vampires who aren't purely evil. (Like I said, the show does a good job with complex, non-binary characters...except maybe Sookie, who pisses me the fuck off anyway.) The second season, I think - the one with the Church of Light, the anti-vampire religious group - does a fantastic job of exploring the religious dimensions of humanity's perspective on vampires and other crazy supernatural beings.

Throughout the show, we get moments when vampires struggle with the idea of whether they're "doomed" by fate or by a god (like baby Jessica early on), and I think most or all of the older ones have come to terms with it by saying "There probably isn't a god, or if there is one, why should I give a shit? He doesn't care about my lot in life or anyone else's." When they admit this, they don't always do it as an excuse for bad behavior; it can just be part of their rationale for not killing themselves, for example.

And, like other people are saying, I was more bothered by the fact that the show basically killed off the ONLY main black female character (who is RELATED to all the others...because all black people are either related or friends or both), who is also queer in some way. The only non-straight human woman no less. Talk about scaling back on diversity, not to mention the loss of Jesus. Tara will probably come back, but I doubt HE will. Regardless: it's a fucking show about Louisiana. How can they think they can get away with having such a dearth of African-American characters? The best we get are little snippets of Tara getting offended by racist statements or actions (and she usually comes off as over-sensitive when she DOES), and yet again another moment with Tara objecting to Bill being a Confederate in the Civil War. Bill does a decent job of defending himself, but isn't this a goddamn PERFECT opportunity to actually explore the racial conflicts inherent in the deep South, ESPECIALLY in Louisiana? I don't know if Alan Ball or Charlaine Harris (the author of the original books) is to blame for that, since the books and show apparently diverge quite a bit.

I can once again reluctantly forgive the show for missing this topic almost entirely...perhaps I'm too forgiving of my guilty (non-guilty?) pleasures...since just because a show is set in a particular location or context, it doesn't HAVE to make that context a main focus. It does a decent job of dealing with the context of Southern culture, creole culture, etc. But it still really bothers me since, historically and even currently, racial tension is a pretty significant part of the culture of the deep South - a part that often gets swept under the carpet by many artists and commentators, and this show seems quite guilty of this gaping omission. I know the defense is that the way it deals with supernatural characters, especially vampires, is all an ANALOGY for civil rights struggles - "God Hates Fangs" and all that. I appreciate that and it's a clever and wonderful artistic choice. But for god's sake, that's no excuse to trim a big fat piece of the world you're representing off just for convenience or out of carelessness.


Thursday, September 1, 2011

"If there is no god, all is permitted."

Philosophy-time. Srs post, once again, is srs. If you're into theology, arguing for or against it, secular/non-theistic/atheistic/agnostic/naturalist philosophy, the philosophy of morals and ethics, COME ON DOWWWWN.

(this is basically what I looked like when I wrote this, except with a laptop next to me.)


I'm starting a class with this title that seeks not to determine whether the statement is true or false, but to look at various arguments for and against the statement. The course covers some of the big thinkers on both sides of the question from Western society, dealing with the Judeo-Christian god. It doesn't seem to delve very deeply into any modern atheist/agnostic thinkers on the topic, which confuses me a little, but I understand if it's meant to be more of a broad historical study than a modern exercise in current philosophical thought. I'm sure that's going to be a big portion of the course, though, especially in our discussion sections.

I've thought about this idea off and on, from the non-theist/agnostic/naturalist perspective, for a while. I'm sure a lot of interesting arguments will come up that will set me off thinking. But here's my initial response to the question, and to the arguments I've heard in favor of the statement.

As you might have guessed, I reject this statement. Before anyone jumps and declares that I'm foolish for saying “we can't get morality from a god, so morality can only be derived from a naturalistic basis,” I'm going to right away state that NO, this is not my argument, and I do not agree with it. I know many who do assert this, and I'm sympathetic to their arguments, which I often find slightly more compelling than those supporting the “morality and ethics come from gods” side, but I still reject it.

There is a direct assertion and an implicit assertion in this statement. The first is that the absence of a god allows all actions - which I'm assuming means all actions both “moral” and “immoral” – to be committed with no basis for judging them as right or wrong. In other words, someone can be free to do anything he pleases and can justify it by saying “well, there's no god to tell me what's right and wrong, so I can do whatever I want because nothing IS right or wrong.” I will actually claim that this DIRECT, literal statement, is true, but that it asserts a false dichotomy which renders the statement itself rather null.

The reason why I argue this is because, as far as I see, one can freely argue – from a fallacious OR reasonable standpoint – that he can do anything he wants without moral restrictions or judgment, and this does not only hold true for non-theists. As an evidence-based thinker, I view the actions and thoughts of people as weightier than rhetoric. Because this logical process is variously asserted and practiced by people who don't believe in god AND those who do, it seems true that yes, it is possible to “permit” oneself to do anything whether one believes in a deity or not. Whether this is “right” or “wrong” in itself – whether it's ethical or logical to think and behave this way – is another question entirely.

The more interesting aspect of this statement, to me, is the implicit claim I see in it – the one that the course is actually based upon, and that I believe will come up most often in our readings and discussions. This assertion is that, if one does not believe in a god, it's philosophically (and perhaps practically, though this is an extremist perspective I think) impossible to create a moral or ethical code. This assertion I wholeheartedly reject – once again, probably predictable given my own philosophical orientation. However, the reason for my rejection isn't perhaps self-evident, so I'll elaborate a bit.

I'll restate that I fully acknowledge the fact that, proceeding from a belief in a god or force which determines right and wrong, it is entirely possible to derive an ethical/moral system that restricts followers from performing actions seen as “wrong”. This is at least true in theory, and is very often true in practice; I don't dismiss the many, many goodhearted and virtuous religious people out there, and all the good they do for the world. I didn't derive my own values from the same starting point, but I share some of the right/wrong distinctions that they obtained from religious thought and faith. And the reason we see such variation in how theists behave and think is because there is an almost infinite number of ways to define and apply qualities to a god. See for instance the difference between the Catholic God, the Muslim God, and a vague godly-entity envisioned by those who merely identify as “spiritual”.

My problem with the statement is that it claims it is NECESSARY to believe in a god to have any set of morals. This can be extended to mean any sort of spiritual force, as many argue. It feels trivial to me to even have to say such a thing is false. However, because I DO admit the possibility of deriving decent morals from religion, I wish to qualify my assertion that a god is not necessary for morality. This is where my naturalistic and probabilistic sensibilities come out.

Let us take what I see to be the core moral and ethical tenet from which nearly all other morals can be derived. (I don't have the energy, time, or amount of deep thought necessary to discuss the value-measurements of various morals – as in, is this moral more important than another?) This happens to be my own personal core tenet as well, and is shared by many naturalists and, I believe, humanists: whenever possible, help instead of harm. Sometimes you have to harm, and sometimes you even have to harm to help, but to harm without need is malicious, and to refuse to help through inaction isn't ethical in my mind either. Keep in mind, I'm arguing this from a NATURALIST perspective, so whether or not this follows a rhetorical pattern that logically follows is irrelevant. I base my worldview, ethics, morals and lifestyle entirely on the physical world, what evidence it gives us, how humans truly behave and think. To argue for morals and ethics that give little or no heed to this is, to my mind, perhaps intellectually fun but ultimately practically useless, and a worldview with little or no practical application seems to make “worldview” itself a misnomer.

So how do I account for the religious' ability to come to this same conclusion I and other non-theists have, and how can I still so easily dismiss the above statement as written? It all boils down to this: despite the fact that it's POSSIBLE to derive the “help don't harm” tenet and other benevolent and useful morals and ethics from a theological basis, it is not NECESSARY. The authors of the Bible concluded a whole host of morals which they described primarily through fables, and many of those morals are quite universal and sturdy – things like don't steal, don't murder, care for the young and elderly if you can, etc. Though the text is rife with questionable morals, arguments, and inexcusable contradictions, I will give it credit for these various teachings, and I'll certainly give credit to the many Christians out there who do their best to practice these sorts of basic “love thy neighbor” behaviors which allow us to coexist happily. The same goes for most faiths – at least the big ones – and I won't address extremism here. The example of extremists can be used to argue that the good things religion can bring, such as these morals, are overruled by how very easy it can be to use the very same texts and tenets to justify atrocities. Once again, trying to focus on the statement given and nothing else.

This is actually my argument for naturalism (or materialism, in the proper sense) in a nutshell: if something can be explained or determined WITHOUT the necessity of assuming supernatural forces and intervention, then it's unnecessary to posit them. I rely philosophically on two bases for this: Occam's Razor, the assertion that one should avoid unnecessary assumptions in explaining phenomena; and Bayesian theory, posing that when the evidence given to us statistically determines that one explanation is much more probable than the other, it's fair to act as if the much less probable hypothesis is null. (This is a PRACTICAL application, not philosophical, perhaps.) By the same token, I would say it's unnecessary to suppose a god in explaining perceived miracles which could otherwise be explained by natural causes. Why? Because, as the Razor states, if we can describe this with the least amount of assumptions – it is not necessary to jump to the conclusion that a god blessed a spring if it seems to cure people of their ills, especially if they've also been receiving medical treatment – then we shouldn't bother adding supernatural forces to the equation. And, as far as Bayes goes, it would follow that if the number of people who are truly “cured” isn't statistically significant – that is, if it doesn't exceed the amount that could have recovered by random chance – then it is highly probable that such a “miracle” is nothing but a phenomenon as easy to explain as any other natural occurrence.

As I mentioned at the start of this, there's a whole host of other issues arising from this initial statement, and it can be argued, from the perspective of a moral relativist or nihilist, that even if gods don't exist, it's logically impossible to claim that ANY objective morals can exist. Philosophically, I can follow and respect much of the arguments given, and in relation to many morals, I DO veer towards relativism. However, as an evidence-based naturalist with pragmatic leanings, I think such arguments can be reduced to intellectual exercises, not descriptions of the actual world and human society. In observing how we interact, how we have historically interacted and how human societies have evolved over time (over VAST amounts of time, for the evolutionary psychologists amongst us), we see people producing various ethical and moral codes in many different ways. In functional societies, they tend to boil down roughly to “whenever possible, help instead of harm.” And this can be derived with OR without any certain god, or any god at all. Further, as the statement claims, we can see non-theists in the world around us using the non-existence of a supernatural moral arbitrator as justification for rejecting any moral code and behaving as they please. Yet we ALSO see evidence of this from those who start from a religious perspective – and it is theological pandering to say “well, they just didn't interpret the Bible the right way, they didn't follow God's will correctly” and so forth.

In conclusion: It is possible for “all to be permitted” with OR without a god, so the literal statement is null. It is possible to derive a moral code that produces a functional society without any proposed supernatural entities, despite the fact that religious thinkers are also capable of deriving a similar moral code. As such, the implicit assertion that a god is NECESSARY for a moral/ethical code to exist, or to be determined by men, is false.