So, did he see his shadow? Is this wretched, brutal winter finally and truly over?
“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes famously tried to find some basis for knowledge that was beyond all doubt, and settled on that as his foundation. Yet, as Buddhist writers among others have pointed out, he still fucked it up by taking for granted the existence of the self, the greatest illusion of all, the one most in need of doubt. Wikipedia puts it slightly more generously, saying, “Initially, Descartes arrives at only a single principle: thought exists. Thought cannot be separated from me, therefore, I exist.” Of course, he should have taken that last step and realized that he himself did not, could not exist in a vacuum, therefore everything else exists too.
The properties of a thing are effects on other “things”:
if one removes other “things”, then a thing has no properties,
i.e., there is no thing without other things,
i.e., there is no “thing-in-itself”.
I’ve been thinking lately about the inadequacy and pointlessness of atheism.
Now that I have your attention, haha! — no, I’m mostly kidding. I haven’t suddenly become a devotee of Zeus, Ra or Jeebus. I just mean that I’ve come to think that arguing about the existence or lack thereof of God, as fun and stimulating as that can be, misses the real point: the ego, the sense of independent selfhood. It’s kind of common now to hear people quip about how God was created in man’s image rather than the other way around, but they don’t often seem to grasp the true import of that statement.
I’ve often explained my decision to identify as an atheist rather than, say, an agnostic on the grounds that when the majority of people, especially in a majority Christian nation, ask if you believe in God, they are not asking if you believe in a Deist Supreme Architect, a Gnostic Logos, or some other similarly abstract, bloodless rational construction. They are asking if you believe in the personal, loving, bipolar, father-figure god, the one who rewards you and smites your enemies, the one who holds out the promise of reunion in the afterlife with all your loved ones, and since it seems ridiculously obvious that such a being is a projection of human vanity upon the universe, I feel perfectly comfortable saying no, I’m certain nothing like that exists.
The thing is, rather than promptly getting sidetracked in hair-splitting discussions of how such a being could possibly exist and for what reasons and in what circumstances, I think it would be far more relevant to stick to the original point: it’s not about Him, it’s all about you.
Most of us know that repressing thoughts and urges only strengthens them. Likewise, arguing and wrestling with egoistic delusions only reinforces the ego. All of our babbling about God boils down to one question: What’s in it for me? Pretending to see evidence of such an anthropomorphic being reassures you that your own existence is meaningful. You might fear the thought of being judged for your actions and found wanting, yet it’s still more comforting to believe that your thoughts and actions are so tremendously important as to require consideration and judgment at all. And whether there is/could be/might be such a being, it really doesn’t matter, seeing as how there’s no abiding, permanent essence to your existence that will ever be around to find out:
To have become a person means to have emerged contingently from a matrix of genetic, psychological, social and cultural conditions. You are neither reducible to one or all of them, nor separate from them. While a person is more than a DNA code, a psychological profile and a social and cultural background, he or she cannot be understood apart from such factors. You are unique not because you possess an essential metaphysical quality that differs from the essential metaphysical quality of everyone else, but because you have emerged from a unique and unrepeatable set of conditions.
It seems to me it would be a lot easier to make this concept understood to people than to waste time debating the existence of God. Anything you could point to in an attempt to define some irreducible essence of “you”, any quality about yourself, whether physical, mental or emotional, is a compound phenomenon contingent upon others for its existence. “Soul” and “spirit” are nothing more than useful metaphors.
Your body is a product of your parents’ DNA (and that of all your earlier relatives), and its continued existence relies, at the very least, on a regular supply of air, food and water. You probably wouldn’t include “oxygen” in a definition of what it means to be you, but it’s impossible to talk about any human being existing in an environment without it.
The language you speak, which shapes and communicates the sorts of thoughts you have, is a cultural work-in-progress, stretching back over thousands of years at least, with contributions from countless people. The ideas you have, the beliefs you hold, the mental qualities that you consider to form such an important aspect of who you are, were pieced together over time and expressed by many different people, adapted to many different situations. You may find a clever way to apply certain ideas, beliefs or insights to your particular experience, but the basic themes were laid down long ago.
Your thoughts and feelings emerge from the interplay between your brain and sensory organs. They are not going to float around in the atmosphere or out in space after your death, waiting for a new host organism to attach themselves to. Any God that mattered would have to make himself known in the here and now, because your death will be the end of your opportunity to know anything about him, as your component atoms dissolve back into the endless flow of life itself from which they arose.
One who denies the permanent essence of self — what should be the word for that?
I read Digby regularly because she’s widely considered to be one of the intellectual heavyweights of the proggie blogosphere. Usually, when I take issue with something she’s said, it’s because of what appears to be naïveté, or — more likely — willful blindness in service to political ideology. But this kind of deliberate partisan hackery really pisses me the fuck off.
It appears this little girl was mentally tortured to death.
I’m sure this behavior isn’t unprecedented. Lord of the Flies was an allegory, but it was also a fairly realistic depiction of human behavior. But I can’t help but feel that the violent, apocalyptic rhetoric of the right over the past few years has torn off much of the civilizing bonds we’d built up over the years. Certainly our recent cavalier attitude toward torture (“when they deserve it”) hasn’t gone unnoticed.
Keep in mind that most of the people who are screaming in red faced rage in news stories every day aren’t young people. It’s older people — the faces of authority — who are doing it. These parental (and grandparental) role models acting out of control with anger gives tacit permission to some kids to act like animals too.
Yes, she’s really trying to say-without-actually-saying that the recent phenomenon of livid, illiterate Republicans with homemade, misspelled cardboard signs hollering on camera about socialism and taxes and Kenyan birth certificates is somehow responsible for teenagers in Massachusetts bullying another girl for months until she committed suicide. If she were simply making that direct claim, it would be merely stupid. But she knows better, and she admits as much right there — humans have always had the capacity for violence and gratuitous cruelty, and anyone who doesn’t have some idiotic, romantic conception of the innocence of childhood knows full well that children can display an astonishing ability to let a pack mentality take over and start senselessly tormenting outcasts for the sheer mindless fun of it.
She knows that. And yet she still tries to use such a horrible incident to score a tiny political point that no one will even remember in two weeks. Fucking disgusting.
I remember staring in slack-jawed amazement back in 2000, after the infamous wilding attacks at the Puerto Rican Day parade in NYC, as someone read an editorial (I think it was in one of the NYC tabloids, but I’m not positive) to me where the author was seriously trying to blame the attacks on Bill Clinton’s behavior with Monica Lewinsky. The “logic” seemingly went something like: Clinton got a blowjob from a willing intern and didn’t lose his job over it, so therefore a bunch of morons, who probably couldn’t even have named the president if asked, figured they could sexually assault random women in public in broad daylight and get away with it. Because again, rape and assault were absolutely unheard of in human history before then.
And remember this classic from Newt Gingrich in 1994, regarding the Susan Smith case?
Here’s what Gingrich said three days before last November’s election — in response to an Associated Press reporter who asked him how the campaign was going: “Slightly more moving our way. I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things.” Gingrich concluded, “The only way you get change is to vote Republican. That’s the message for the last three days.”
Nice company you’re keeping these days, Digs. Be proud.