Monthly Archives: October 2012

Mere Mortals

At some point, all  thinking people must confront the puzzle of existence and mortality. Bertrand Russell once said that the central question of all philosophy is why is there something rather than nothing? More specifically, why me? why not me? It is a stupendously difficult question to answer, and what’s worse, we have such a narrow window of time to try to answer it.

It could very well be that at the bottom of it all there is no answer. Existence simply behaves the way it behaves for no reason with no cause. Our lives are a fortuitous accident of chemical processes, evolved over billions of years into  semi-rational primates who are capable of asking the question “why are we here?” but cannot arrive at an answer. From where we are standing, this seems to be precisely the case, however unwelcome this conclusion may be.

Our existence is a speck of cosmic dust, leftover from the explosion of an anonymous star. Our planet is just one of many lost in a sea of solar systems, floating around in many galaxies, possibly in many universes. And all this is taking place on a scale so grand, so magnificent, that we can’t even begin to contemplate our own relative unimportance. In the long run, every thought, feeling, and emotion means nothing because the universe does not care. It will continue to exist thoughtlessly long after our sun dies and our planet is wiped out.

For some, this is a disconcerting notion. It is simply too nihilistic a pill to swallow, and it’s impossible to reconcile it with our egocentric concept of existence. Humans are too elegant, too powerful, too purposeful for it to all be completely meaningless at the bottom.

This is not a trivial objection. I have no predetermined bias against the possibility that there may be something more to it all. However, we ought to exercise extreme caution when entering the precarious waters of the unknown.

Of those who find the “purposeless universe” conclusion unwelcoming, many assert that the only alternative is to posit a deity to solve the problem. This seems on its surface a harmless and viable solution to the puzzle. But here we seem to encounter an even more puzzling dilemma. This deity, if it exists, has decided to remain hidden. None of its attributes are discoverable rationally or empirically. Rather than showing itself, making its will and plans clear to each of us, offering a definite answer to the most important questions in life and death, it leaves us with an irreconcilable hodgepodge of myths, prophets, and holy books. This god chooses to leave us with the burden of determining what to believe and what to disregard, and it gives us no viable means to do so.

Here the question of existence moves from intrigue to danger. The unwelcomed ambiguity creates a state of affairs in which anybody is justified in reaching any conclusion he desires regarding this deity. Indefensible, illogical, untenable truth claims all become common place, and so long as they are correctly labelled as “religious” by nature, they cannot be called invalid. What’s worse, the proponents of these assertions so often claim to hold a monopoly on the truth. They dismiss any rival speculation, and they stake their lives and purpose in their assumptions. This is all dangerous enough, but they do not stop there. They go on to claim that anybody who does not embrace these claims will be tortured for all of eternity upon death. And, of course, it is perfectly acceptable and commonplace to indoctrinate young children with these beliefs.

Any thinking person should be able to deduce that these narrow-minded claims are defeated via reductio ad absurdum; yet they persist. They permeate the world in which we live, our daily lives, our language, our art, our political climate. They plant themselves in the back of our minds, and no matter how unreasonable or disconcerting, they simply will not go away. Such is the nature of the unknown.

The famous philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal formally presented the quandary in what’s famously become known as Pascal’s Wager. I do not wish to dignify the “wager” by explaining it here, but suffice It to say that it is perhaps the most despicably arrogant and damaging notion that a cognitive being could construct. It is intended to frighten us all into conformity. It celebrates thought crime and attempts to vindicate mindless intimidation under the guise of “probability,” as if life and death are a casino game. Yet we are all forced to confront it, and as we approach mortality, we are left with the decision to enter the unknown with conviction or to cower into submission.

I would like to think that any deity worth its salt would reward the bravery in confessing the limits of our knowledge rather than the cowardice of asserting a belief without evidence. And I certainly hope that on my deathbed I have the courage to maintain as much. I will not know until I am there, but I hope to follow in the footsteps of those who held their infidelity to their dying breath. In the meantime, I strive to live as morally as possible, and I hope that any possible deity would be more concerned with virtue than dogma. In any case, I value virtue in its own rite, and superfluous deities almost seem to cheapen it.

I propose that the possibility of an indifferent universe should not be feared but celebrated. Instead, let us rejoice in what we know: that whether by design or by accident, we have this life and this universe. Of this much we can be certain. It is our right and our responsibility to harvest the fruits of existence and seize what we know. I implore all people to embrace existence on its own terms. If the universe has no value at its bottom, at the very least, we can choose to create our own fleeting value in our lives, our decisions, and in our convictions.

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The Trial

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury

I know you all are in a hurry

And so I’ll make my message swift

And spend my words with careful thrift.

You’ve heard the strident prosecution

Insist on endless retribution

Punishments not known to men

All because of one man’s sin.

Some fruit was eaten long ago

And what an awful mess to show

So here I stand, the great debater

To plea to the irate creator.

You see, my client had no choice

No say, no words, no humble voice

Born a sinner from the start

No chance, no hope; a rotten heart.

Good deeds and will are not enough

To justify that other stuff.

Oh no, we all await instead

Judgment of the quick and dead.

“But wait,” you say, “he had a choice.

If only he had heard my voice!

You see, I warned him many times

Believe, and I’ll absolve your crimes.

For once a long long time ago

With little evidence to show

I sent my son to bear the shame

To conquer death and change the game.

I had him nailed upon a cross

No better way to please the boss.

But death alone would not suffice

I had to bring him back to life!

He turned some water into wine

All in bronze age Palestine

If all of this you could concede

There’d be no pain, there’d be no need.

But it’s all too late for that

Now, burn in hell, ungrateful brat.”

But sir, he lived a noble life.

Never cheating on his wife

Honest to his dying breath

And had no debts upon his death.

He helped the hungry, sick, and poor.

He loved the peace and hated war.

He sought the truth in all his ways.

He read and studied all his days.

So I suppose I’ll keep it brief.

His only crime was disbelief.

And to this much I shall admit

Now to your will I shall submit.

I see his failure to repent

Now burn him ’til your heart’s content.

Genesis

When I was in fourth grade, my class was given an assignment that might have changed my life if I had allowed it to. We were instructed to select an inventor or scientist, research  his or her life, and transform ourselves into a wax dummy of that figure for an hour while spectators walked around, pushing buttons that would “bring us to life”. We’d explain our figure’s contribution to science, then return to our resting state until we were “awoken” by a new spectator.

I selected (or was handed, I don’t recall) Sir Isaac Newton. I vaguely remember typing his name into a search engine and rehearsing an ostensible speech about gravity and Newton’s birthday. I had no idea what gravity even was at the time, except to say that it was the ultimate authority on why we don’t all just float off into outer space. If my commitment to mediocrity was not sufficiently apparent, my demonstration of Newton’s principle was to drop an eraser on my desk. My teacher was polite enough not to expose my academic laziness at the time, though he may have done me a favor had he at least offered some polite disapproval. In either case, the blame rests on my shoulders. I could have taken this as an opportunity to learn about the effects of gravity. I would have discovered that it is responsible not only for our tendency to stick to the earth, but also for our position in orbit, the creation of stars (and thus chemical elements and ultimately life), and according to some physicists, the universe itself. But I didn’t have to stop there. I could have discovered something about Newtonian physics, differential and integral calculus, and, where the real fun begins, Newton’s failed experiments and unintelligible assumptions.

As is so often the case, the assignment itself was nothing special.  Nobody remembers my speech, nor should they. What I failed to realize at the time is that its real value was in the process. Being a wax dummy was a fun way to kill an hour. Getting a glimpse into the mind of Isaac Newton was worth more than that. Understanding the pursuit of knowledge and appreciating those who dared to think, that was the goal.

When reflecting upon my academic career thus far, the word “underachiever” comes to mind. I’ve always done just the right amount of work to get by. Sometimes this has been more than sufficient, which is why when I look at my superficially high GPA and President’s List appearances, it’s hard to take my accomplishments seriously. The reality is that I seldom put forth my best efforts in school.

Indolence is not the only source of my sub-par efforts. Wandering through the bureaucratic void known as the Cal State system can take a mental toll on anybody. Lacking any meaningful direction for the past year and a half certainly hasn’t helped.

My old blog was a place to spill my sporadic thoughts and gaze from a distance at a nonsensical scatter-plot, looking for some semblance of a pattern. It’s filled with naive, poorly researched opinions, uninteresting self-loathing and embarrassing prose about loneliness and angst. I could look back on this with scorn, or derail it in scorched-earth fashion. Instead, I think it’s important that I recognize it on its own terms and start moving forward. I’ve been roundly criticized for having a wandering mind, preoccupied with itself and constantly wading through a sea of useless pop-culture references, baseball statistics, and paranoid delusions. I wish I could defend myself against these accusations, but they come from such trusted sources that maybe I ought to consider them for what they’re worth. Maybe my sporadic and random firing of thoughts is preventing me from seeing the world as an adult and forming mature relationships.

Recognizing all this is one thing. Changing it is quite another. This blog is something of a symbol of my commitment to shaping my mind into something more coherent. More importantly, it’s a pledge to start putting my best foot forward in everything that I do. I hope it will serve as a useful medium for documenting that journey.

One week ago, I got off the fence and officially declared a major in economics. I was, and still am, apprehensive about the choice, but defining a direction has gone a long way towards invigorating my pursuit of knowledge. Today I’m committing to taking knowledge seriously: every day, every assignment, every lecture.

There’s probably no Nobel prize at the end of it or 7 figure salary along the way. But I’m in it for the chase. Who knows? Maybe someday a fourth grader will put on dark rimmed glasses and a messy faux-hawk to explain the Bakker Theory of Market Operations.