“Yes, yes,” say the proponents of magic, “but there’s still a mystery: how can all this vivid conscious experience be physical, merely and wholly physical?” (I’m assuming, with them, that we’re wholly physical beings.) This, though, is the 400-year-old mistake. In speaking of the “magical mystery show”, Humphrey and many others make a colossal and crucial assumption: the assumption that we know something about the intrinsic nature of matter that gives us reason to think that it’s surprising that it involves consciousness. We don’t. Nor is this news. Locke knew it in 1689, as did Hume in 1739. Philosopher-chemist Joseph Priestley was extremely clear about it in the 1770s. So were Eddington, Russell and Whitehead in the 1920s.One thing we do know about matter is that when you put some very common-or-garden elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sodium, potassium, etc) together in the way in which they’re put together in brains, you get consciousness like ours – a wholly physical phenomenon. (It’s happening to you right now.) And this means that we do, after all, know something about the intrinsic nature of matter, over and above everything we know in knowing the equations of physics. Why? Because we know the intrinsic nature of consciousness and consciousness is a form of matter.
Sword of Damocles
The only thing better than expecting your life to be thrown into chaos and upheaval in the near future is having to sit and wait for two weeks to find out precisely to what extent your life will be thrown into chaos and upheaval in the near future.
Did I Win the Race or Was It Just a False Start?
In Rawlsian terms, the problem in America is not that a minority has grown super rich, but that for decades now, it has done so to the detriment of the lower social classes. The big question is: why does the majority in a seemingly free society tolerate this, and even happily vote against its own economic interests? A plausible answer is that it is under a self-destructive meritocratic spell that sees social outcomes as moral desert—a spell at least as old as the American frontier but long since repurposed by the corporate control of public institutions and the media: news, film, TV, publishing, etc. Rather than move towards greater fairness and egalitarianism, it promotes a libertarian gospel of the free market with minimal regulation, taxation, and public safety nets.  What would it take to break this spell?
When Words Are Many, He Who Holds His Tongue Is Wise
Shooting the breeze with Shanna the other day. While making a valiant effort to edumacate me in various facets of Greek myths that I had never studied properly, she mentioned a former professor of hers who was a stickler for the proper pronunciation of Greek names. That reminded me of something Dennis Perrin said once:
Being an autodidact, I often mispronounced new words I learned, holding back in conversation until I heard someone else speak correctly.
At the heart of Bell’s position is that God’s love can triumph over every obstacle, including sins that Christians have long believed would consign them to anguish in the afterlife. But that notion is appalling to many people, Bell argues, and is minimized even by those who uphold its truth.“The book is saying we need to take hell more seriously,” Bell told The Associated Press, “Because the people who warn about hell when you die don’t seem to talk about it very much.”“Atheists are not going to be impressed by this book. Skeptics are not going to be impressed by this book,” said Christian blogger Justin Taylor at the Southern Baptist forum. “The people who are going to be impressed by this book are disaffected evangelicals.
And If We Fade Away, We Were Never Meant to Stay
Discussing mortality, Hitchens and a friend used to muse that there would come a day when the newspapers would come out and they wouldn’t be there to read them. ‘And on that day, I’ve realised recently, I’ll probably be in the newspapers, or quite a lot of them. And etiquette being what it is, generally speaking, rather nice things being said about me.’ He shrugs. ‘Just typical that will be the edition I miss. But it’s not so much that; it’s more that you’re at the party and you’re tapped on the shoulder and told you have to leave. The party is still going on, but it’s going on without you. And even people who swear to remember you are not really going to do so.‘However, put the contrary case. You get tapped on the shoulder, but guess what? The party’s going on for ever; you have to stay. And not only that, but you have to have a good time – the boss says so.’He gives a slight shudder.‘Anything eternal is probably intolerable. One thing that makes the atheist position intellectually, and in some ways morally, superior is that we accept conclusions on the basis of reason and evidence that are not welcome to us. We don’t want to be annihilated. We just think the overall likelihood is that we will rejoin the molecular cycle when we die. We don’t wish it to be true, but we face it.’
The desire to continue always can only seem attractive when one thinks of indefinite time rather than infinite time. It is one thing to have as much time as you want, but quite another to have time without end… We do not really want continuity, but rather a present experience of total happiness. The thought of wanting such an experience to go on and on is the result of becoming self-conscious in the experience, and thus completely unaware of it. So long as there is the feeling of an “I” having this experience, the moment is not all. Eternal life is realized when the last trace of difference between “I” and “now” has vanished—when there is just this “now” and nothing else.
Via Ruairí, I see that a long-overdue documentary about Alan Watts is in need of funding. I’m pretty sure I can do without several nonessential expenditures this month in order to throw in my share.
For the point is not, in our accustomed egocentric mode of thinking, that it would be good to return to our original integrity with nature. The point is that it is simply impossible to get away from it, however vividly we may imagine we have done so. Similarly, it is impossible to experience the future and not experience the present. But trying to realize this is another attempt to experience the future. Some logician may object that this is a merely tautological statement which has no consequence, and he will be right. But we are not looking for a consequence. We are no longer saying, “So what?” to everything, as if the only importance of our present experience were in what it is leading to, as if we should constantly interrupt a dancer, saying, “Now just where are you going, and what, exactly, is the meaning of all these movements?”
We have a proverb that to travel well is better than to arrive, which comes close to the Oriental idea. Wisdom does not consist in arriving at a particular place, and no one need imagine that it is necessarily obtained by climbing a ladder whose rungs are the successive stages of psychological experience. That ladder has no end, and the entrance to enlightenment, wisdom or spiritual freedom may be found on any one of its rungs. If you discover it, it does not mean that you will not have to go on climbing the ladder; you must go on climbing just as you must go on living. But enlightenment is found by accepting fully the place where you stand now.
The notion that human sanity has a good deal to do with self-restraint has persisted for many thousands of years, and has had some very wise exponents. But it has usually had an end in view—a temporal, future end—some sort of pie in the sky. No one can really abstain, however; no one can effectively overcome the mad greed of anxiety, until he has realized that the future is a mirage which does not contain the answer to anything. The true ascetic is not forcing himself; he is just acting naturally in accordance with reality as he sees it.
The notion of a separate thinker, of an “I” distinct from the experience, comes from memory and from the rapidity with which thought changes. It is like whirling a burning stick to give the illusion of a continuous ring of fire. If you imagine that memory is a direct knowledge of the past rather than a present experience, you get the illusion of knowing the past and the present at the same time. This suggests that there is something in you distinct from both the past and present experiences. You reason, “I know this present experience, and it is different from that past experience. If I can compare the two, and notice that experience has changed, I must be something constant and apart.” But as a matter of fact, you cannot compare this present experience with a past experience. You can only compare it with a memory of the past, which is a part of the present experience. When you see clearly that memory is a form of present experience, it will be obvious that trying to separate yourself from this experience is as impossible as trying to make your teeth bite themselves. There is simply experience. There is not someone or something experiencing experience!
Still more important, it is quite obvious to the canny observer that most Christians, including clergy and devout laity, do not really believe in Christianity. If they did, they would be screaming in the streets, taking daily full-page advertisements in the newspapers, and subscribing for the most hair-raising television programs every night of the week. Even Jehovah’s Witnesses are polite and genteel in their door-to-door propaganda. Nobody, save perhaps a few obscure fanatics, is really bothered by the idea that every man is constantly haunted by an angelic fiend, more imminently dangerous and malicious than the most depraved agents of the Nazis. Most people are sinners and unbelievers, and will probably go to hell. So what? Let God worry about that one!
But the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously. He must really have come to terms with the Lord God Jehovah and with his Hebrew-Christian conscience so that he can take it or leave it without fear or rebellion. He must be free of the itch to justify himself. Lacking this, his Zen will either be “beat” or “square”, either a revolt from the culture and social order or a new form of stuffiness and respectability. For Zen is above all the liberation of the mind from conventional thought, and this is something utterly different from rebellion against convention, on the one hand, or adapting foreign conventions, on the other.
What this means for practical action is that we accept the standards of logic and morals, not exactly with reservations, but with a certain humor. We will try to keep them, knowing that we shall not altogether succeed. We shall commit ourselves to positions and promises as best we may, knowing always that there must be a hintergedanke—a thought far in the back of the mind which, like crossed fingers, gives us an “out” when pressed too far. We shall realize that behind our devotion to duty there is always a strong element of self-admiration, and that even in the most passionate love of others there is inevitably the aspect of personal gratification.
The Man Who Played God
Lee getting old reminds me of my own mortality; in her I see what it is to become elderly, to not be able to do the things you used to be able to do, to have things happen slowly, seemingly forever, and then very and irrevocably quickly. And for this I am irrationally and deeply jealous of people whose dogs die suddenly and young, because although they feel a different kind of pain, this is something they never have to face.The night I decided to put Lee down, I sat alone in my apartment at my computer for hours, mindlessly listening to music and reading Twitter and Tumblr, and sobbing, those deep kinds of sobs where you can’t breathe and you can’t control the tears, which just keep coming, even when you think you don’t have any left. It seemed unjust and yet fair that she had no idea what was to happen the next day, and every time I thought about that I cried more.
Is It Fate, or Is It Just a Cold Heart?
So I’m through with saving you
A gift unto myself
A tired savior, a wasted favor, I’m lucky I’m alive
I just got done talking to the woman who would have been my mother-in-law, had I been married to my ex-girlfriend. Since she and I split almost six years ago, her parents have inherited the unenviable job of trying their best in a likely futile attempt to keep her from total self-destruction. So her mom calls me regularly when she needs a sympathetic ear, since no one knows better than me what sort of tiger she has by the tail.
Over these past several years, my ex has systematically used up and tossed aside everyone that has tried to help her, friends and family alike. Tens of thousands of dollars and countless hours of effort and goodwill, all for naught, not even counting what she put me through financially and emotionally. She had been sharing a house with the last friend of hers patient enough to try to help her get back on her feet, and now that’s come to an acrimonious end amid the usual accusations of lies and theft that follow her everywhere she goes. She venomously disowned her mother in a hateful letter a couple years ago, so this all gets to her through the grapevine. A devout Christian with deep reserves of generosity and patience, even she’s given up on her daughter, calling her crazy and hopeless. In debt, unable to hold a job or domestic arrangement for long, and with a toddler to care for; no one at this point would be surprised if she’s soon homeless, or even dead.
I only briefly enjoyed epicaricacy at her expense, shortly after we broke up, but even that started to feel cruelly gratuitous before too long, as it became clear what sort of avalanche she’d unleashed on herself with a series of astoundingly stupid decisions, which have only compounded themselves since then. I suspect she’s untreated bipolar, and said as much to her while we were still together, but she’s never sought treatment for it. I also suspect she might be a genuine sociopath, as she only seems to see other people as tools to be manipulated and disposed of as she sees fit. Kindness is a weakness to be exploited, not a gift to be appreciated.
I have to work hard at dredging up memories enough to genuinely feel any hate for her, and it’s almost never worth the effort anymore; there are much better uses for my time. The only reason I’m having phone conversations about her now is because of having to get involved to prevent her eldest son from becoming the latest victim of her machinations, but in general, she’s long gone from my life and I just count myself lucky to be as well-off as I am.
As I hung up the phone, though, in what has become the common ritual after these calls, I just stared out the window for a while, feeling sad about the sheer pointless, irrational stupidity of it all. I know she’s had far more chances to get her life together than most of us will ever get (or need). I know she doesn’t “deserve” any sympathy, as far as people usually reckon such things. I know she needs the kind of help, probably involving therapy and medication, that no one will ever be able or willing to give her, even if she were able and willing to ask for it. I know she’s just one of countless such people living miserable lives, dragging others down with them. It’s just deeply saddening to see such mindless, compulsive self-mutilation. It’s like watching someone in a frenzied rage, throwing themselves violently against the bars of a cage they created themselves. I see the apparently inexorable process that led to this point, but sometimes I still can’t help but wish for it to suddenly, magically just stop.
Is this compassion? Because it’s not really all it’s cracked up to be.
Eating 90% less meat than the average American and reallocating the money I would have spent on factory-farmed meat to buy much smaller portions of ethically and sustainably raised animal products seems like a worthy and attainable goal. Yes, meat production is environmentally expensive. So is iPod production, yet many vegans own iPods. Unless you want to argue that we should all be maximally ascetic in every aspect of life, it seems unfair to single out the occasional grass-fed steak as an unacceptable extravagance. What matters is your total footprint. If you really want a steak, or an iPod, find somewhere else to cut back.