Let’s make the village a concept and do this again. Rosalie is an agnostic. She has heard the argument that no one can prove a negative and believes it. Then she wanders into a café and reads a big book on doubt as she waits out the rain. Now she knows that the term agnosticism was invented only a hundred years ago by Thomas Henry Huxley, and has no intellectual pedigree to speak of. Huxley made it up having read about Skepticism, which is a philosophically robust proposition that asks how we can know anything at all, given the limitations of our minds and our tiny, animal perspective. Skepticism is thousands of years old and has been brilliantly explored in every age. Agnosticism is the logic of Skepticism applied to only one question, the question of whether one particular people’s imagined idea of the supernatural actually exists.To be sensible, either you are a Skeptic about all things, which allows you to be a profoundly interesting thinker but does not allow you to claim to know anything about the world; or you are a rationalist, which means you gather evidence, try to minimize your cultural bias, and make conclusions. If you make your decisions by rationalism, you can certainly say that an idea is not to be considered as at all valid if it has no evidence to argue for it being true. In Skepticism I have to allow that possibly all of life is happening in the dream of a cosmic elephant; in rationalism, I do not. It is philosophical nonsense to take Skepticism and apply it to one belief. In rationalism, it is possible to rule on the validity of a conjecture that has no evidence.Huxley made up agnosticism because he wanted to leave room for people to be atheists but still keep a line of hope. But that is massively wrong-headed. When people confront the truth they get used to it and see that it is not so bad. So there is no afterlife. Big deal. Life is enough. When you are dead, you are so dead that nothing should matter to you about it. When you are alive, you’re alive. Every moment is so huge, there is so much of it, and we take in so little of it. You want more life at the end? You’re hardly using the life you have now. None of us are. We already have more than we can handle. Your job is to try to know the present and the past, to expand into the now, in part by knowing what was.Some people get on a plane to change where they are but you can transform your surroundings as well as your inner world with just a touch of new knowing.
Spinoza was a great man and a wonderfully subversive thinker, but religious/philosophical arguments framed in mathematical terminology don’t exactly make for gripping reading. So I’m just going to quote extensively from Philipp Blom’s book here, as it contains a great summary of his thinking:
Are we looking at a future of edible balconies and backyard chickens and rooftop beekeepers? Most city livers (and we are now a majority) have felt to some degree or other that a life without occasional access to nature feels empty — or, not empty enough. We make our cities bigger and bigger, and still can’t fully shake the feeling that the things people build, the things that most remind us of our humanness, also rob us of an essential part of our humanity. We have come to think this absence can only be filled by being in an environment that has nothing to do with us, that is bigger than we are. An environment we can’t control, that allows us to relinquish control when we are inside it. A lack of access to the natural world, that world we fought so very hard to protect ourselves from, has always left us a little colder inside.…Maybe the city is not such an obvious choice for agriculture. But then again, why not? Agriculture is, after all, culture. We can cultivate fountains in the desert; why not grow tomatoes on the windowsill? Urban gardeners tell us that we don’t need to leave the city to have a relationship with nature, nor do we have to leave nature alone in order to appreciate it. Whether or not urban growing truly brings us closer to nature, I cannot say. Perhaps, though, in turning farming into an aesthetic venture, urban growing will tweak the way we currently think about agriculture.Certainly, many urban gardeners are interested in the environmental (i.e. moral) consequences of city growing. The eco-ethical dream of those like Folke Günther is that urban gardening could move beyond aesthetic concerns and really help feed the world’s urban poor. For now, though, the movement outside my window is not subsistence farming. No one in Brooklyn is going to starve without urban gardens. Even so, urban gardeners are earnest in their agricultural pursuits. I think most commercial farmers would be pretty surprised to see how much children in Prospect Park have learned about irrigation techniques. What’s surely exciting is that urban gardeners have us imagining cities as we’ve never seen them, that move beyond public parks and designated green zones: rooftop apple-picking, gardens in school cafeterias, skyscrapers that emerge out of forests. The modern city as the new Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Gardens — and still Babylon, too.
I would come back to meat eating, and I would do it because of my love for animals.Every meal you eat that supports a sustainable farm changes the agricultural world. I cannot possibly stress this enough. Your fork is your ballot, and when you vote to eat a steak or leg of lamb purchased from a small farmer you are showing the industrial system you are actively opting out. You are showing them you are willing to sacrifice more of your paycheck to dine with dignity. As people are made more aware of this beautiful option, farmers are coming out in droves to meet the demand. Farmers markets have been on a rapid rise in the US thanks to consumer demand for cleaner meat, up 16% in the last year alone.It’s a hard reality for a vegetarian to swallow, but my veggie burgers did not rattle the industry cages at all. I was simply avoiding the battlefield, stepping aside as a pacifist. There is nobility in the vegetarian choice, but it isn’t changing the system fast enough. In a world where meat consumption is soaring, the plausible 25% of the world’s inhabitants who have a mostly vegetarian diet aren’t making a dent in the rate us humans are eating animals. In theory, a plant-based diet avoids consuming animals but it certainly isn’t getting cows out of feedlots. However, steak-eating consumers choosing to eat sustainably raised meat are. They chose to purchase a product raised on pasture when they could have spent less money on an animal treated like a screwdriver.I’m sorry my vegetarian friends, but it’s time to come back to the table. You can remain in the rabbit hole and keep eating your salad, but the only way out for good is to eat the rabbit.
Ever had goosebumps or felt euphoric chills when listening to a piece of music? If so, your brain is reacting to the music in the same way as it would to some delicious food or a psychoactive drug such as cocaine, according to scientists.The experience of pleasure is mediated in all these situations by the release of the brain’s reward chemical, dopamine, according to results of experiments carried out by a team led by Valorie Salimpoor of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, which are published today in Nature Neuroscience.Music seems to tap into the circuitry in the brain that has evolved to drive human motivation – any time we do something our brains want us to do again, dopamine is released into these circuits. “Now we’re showing that this ancient reward system that’s involved in biologically adaptive behaviours is being tapped into by a cognitive reward,” said Salimpoor.She said music provided an intellectual reward, because the listener has to follow the sequence of notes to appreciate it. “A single tone won’t be pleasurable in isolation. However, a series of single tones arranged in time can become some of the most pleasurable experiences that humans have ever reported. That’s amazing because it suggests that somehow our cerebral cortex is following these tones over time and there must be a component of build-up, anticipation, expectation.”
Now, if the intellectual faculties could identify the pleasure-giving patterns, purify them, and concentrate them, the brain could stimulate itself without the messiness of electrodes or drugs. It could give itself intense artificial doses of the sights and sounds and smells that ordinarily are given off by healthful environments.
Even today, the public discussion about moral and political issues is no longer framed in an explicitly religious context, but the change in terminology only conceals the all-pervasive influence of the unexamined theological ideas underlying it. Our vocabulary has changed, of course: We no longer speak about the soul but about the psyche; we have exchanged original sin for inherited, psychological guilt. But the cultural soil on which these ideas flourish has remained the same, and all too often our worldview is inherently religious without our even realizing it.…Christianity is the religion of the suffering God. Christ was made flesh and had to die, to be tortured to death, thus allowing God the Creator to forgive humanity for its wickedness. Holbach and Diderot wrote all there is to be written about the perversity of this argument, but even the most irreligious of Westerners still believe in the positive, transformative value of suffering. We have all internalized the Romantic stereotype of the solitary, suffering genius (a figure almost singlehandedly invented by Rousseau in his Confessions). We love stories in which people triumph over adversity, in which they are almost crushed by wickedness or misfortune, only to emerge again, to be resurrected. This kind of story is found in many cultures, but not in all. The ancient Greeks attached no moral value to suffering. After journeying around the Mediterranean for twenty years and surviving many dangers, Homer’s Odysseus is older—but not a wiser or better man.
Ideas have consequences, contorted ideas all the more so. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s rhetorical proclivities for metaphorical enigma and hyperbole have been exploited as potential sources of inspiration for egregious acts of terror, most recently in Arizona. Ideas, and Nietzsche’s specifically, must be situated in both their proper intellectual and historical context to be properly understood.It would be outrageously insensitive to suggest that a more nuanced interpretation of Nietzsche would have prevented Jared Loughner from pulling the trigger on January 8. Clearly, as we have learned from recent revelations of Loughner’s writings and ideas, he was, as Zane Gutierrez attested to, mentally deranged. To incriminate Nietzsche, though, would be anachronistic and based on a specious understanding of his philosophy. In a world of media communications defined by sound bites and a concomitant lack of context, historians have a responsibility to the public to provide the necessary context, the full picture, the long view, whatever one chooses to call it, to promote a more informed and productive public discourse.
This is, of course, only the nerdiest of the many implausibilities depicted in the film. But the movie created enough buzz that NASA started getting mail about it. Yeomans told The Australian: “The agency is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.” NASA has a special section on its website, “2012: A Reality Check”, and has even created its own video about it. In the video, Yeomas laboriously debunks the “2012 myth,” and explains that his only plan for December 12, 2012 is to “lay in an extra supply of egg nog.”As absurd as the movie is, public fear about the “2012 phenomenon” is even more so. The film’s trailers, which ended by encouraging audiences to search the web (“Find out the truth: Google search 2012”), must bear part of the blame – but so must the hordes of overheated Googlers who hurtled into NASA’s inbox. Perhaps they’re the cataclysm we ought to be worrying about.
Signs of the imminence of this apocalypse were plentiful. A series of famines, ruined harvests, and freezing winters in the 1570s and 1580s indicated that God Himself was withdrawing His warmth from the earth. Smallpox, typhus and whooping cough swept through the country, as well as the worst disease of all: the plague. All four Horsemen of the Apocalypse seemed to have been unleashed: pestilence, war, famine and death. A werewolf roamed the country, conjoined twins were born in Paris, and a new star – a nova – exploded in the sky. Even those not given to religious extremism had a feeling that everything was speeding towards some indefinable end.
What is nihilism?It’s the feeling that nothing in the world matters any more than anything else. Nietzsche’s analysis was that people once found meaning in their belief in the Judeo-Christian God, but that in the post-medieval world belief wasn’t sufficient anymore to give people the sense that things really mattered. The basic philosophical issue underlying the book, then, is: how are you supposed to live your life in order to make it possible that things matter again?Is nihilism an intellectual problem, or an emotional one?Some people really suffer from the feeling that nothing seems to matter any more than anything else. David Foster Wallace called it a ‘stomach-level sadness.’ I think that’s a pretty good description of it.
The belief that momentary feelings of unity or visions of perfection can survive permanently into everyday life this side of eternity is the ante-room of nihilism and fascism. Such beliefs give rise to ahistorical fantasies, which can never materialize beyond the notion. To the extent that they are relentlessly pursued, they progressively crush the moments of solace that precious moments of grace can in fact convey. Historically such fantasies have spawned generations of cynics, misanthropes and failed revolutionaries who, having glimpsed resolution, cannot forgive the grinding years of imperfect life that still must be lived.
Nietzsche, oddly, has suffered a similar fate. Because of his assault on religion and rationalist metaphysics, and because of the hints of anarchy in his assorted visions of the future (e.g., “the transvaluation of all values”), he’s taken as the West’s über-nihilist. But he saw himself as the scourge of European nihilism, and possibly also its remedy. Nietzsche saw nihilism as a disease, which grows from, in Alexander Nehamas’ words, “the assumption that if some single standard is not good for everyone and all time, then no standard is good for anyone at any time.” It presents itself as mindless hedonism and flaccid spirit, but also as fanaticism.So does that make Nietzsche and Jared Lee Loughner philosophical brethren after all, joined in the same fanatical fight against nihilism? In a word, no, and Loughner’s pathological fixation on the meaning of words is the giveaway. One way of looking at Nietzsche’s project is that he set out to teach himself and his readers to love the world in its imperfection and multiplicity, for itself. This is behind his assaults on religion, liberal idealism, and utilitarian systems of social organization. He saw these as different ways of effacing or annihilating the world as it is. It is behind his infamous doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence—in which he embraces the “most abysmal thought,” that the given world, and not the idealizing stories we tell of it, is all there is, and he will affirm this reality even if it recurs eternally.Jared Loughner’s despair that everything is unreal and words have no meaning amounts to hatred of the world (a mania of moralism and narcissism) for its failure to resemble the words we apply to it. Faced with a choice between real people and some stupid abstraction about words, themselves mere abstractions, Loughner killed the people to defend the abstraction. This, then, really is a kind of nihilism, only not the kind that people think Nietzsche was guilty of. It’s the kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was trying to warn us about, and help us overcome.
So I click on the Huffington Post – which probably means I have no right to complain in any event; caveat lector and all that – and I’m greeted with a gigantic headline: Military Panel Backs Women in Combat (on a post tagged “women’s rights”).
“Women in the military are exposed to the same kind of dangers that combat service exposes a soldier to, but the difference is that the women are not getting combat pay, and they’re not getting combat-related opportunities for promotion,” NOW President Terry O’Neill said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “So it’s only fair to recognize that women belong, as much as men do, in combat units.”In 2005, the Washington Post interviewed dozens of U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq — men and women of various ranks — about the exclusion of women from combat, and they “voiced frustration over restrictions on women mandated in Washington that they say make no sense in the war they are fighting. All said the policy should be changed to allow, at a minimum, mixed-sex support units to be assigned to combat battalions. Many favored a far more radical step: letting qualified women join the infantry.”