I must admit to being impressed by the prowess of the nascent skeptics movement, which in the US has managed to collapse into schism without even a credo to argue over. If you consider yourself a skeptic or rationalist and frequent the blogs and websites of the American movement, you're probably familiar with the ongoing debacle, starting from the initial ginned-up scandal of Elevatorgate and continuing as the two sides become increasingly shrill and entrenched. If you have spared yourself the misery thus far, I hesitate to be the one to inflict exposure: in general terms, the war wages over sexism in the skeptical movement -- how serious it is, and how firmly it ought to be combated. The tenor of controversy baffled me at first, and has since completely soured me on the American skeptics. The Center for Skeptical Inquiry, to my knowledge the oldest and most accomplished skeptical organization in the United States, has been the loser, seeing contributors and staff desert it after its inadequate response to the call of the witch-hunt revolution. Point of Inquiry, once the most laudable of the skeptical podcasts, is now on hiatus. I'm sure Paul Kurtz and Carl Sagan would be quite proud of the skeptical movement: absent George Bush in the White House to rally against we have apparently decided to self-destruct. Bravo, skeptics. I am sure once the CSI has fallen under the ragefest of the puritans or its seeming inability to realize there are concerns to address, the American movement can be maintained by PZ Myers posting octopus pictures and pissing in the face of the Catholic church like a petulant schoolboy.
For years my concern with the skeptical movement has been that it limits itself too much to simply attacking religion, attacks which inspire nothing but defensive reactions and do little to apply the discerning blade of critical thinking against more pliable foes, improving the lives of people by arming them against consumer fraud (for example), establishing that skepticism is a useful tool for everyone, and not just the Foe of Religion, for which so many people have a sentimental attachment for. This skeptical schism is erasing whatever credibility we ever earned by broadcasting to the world: skeptics are just as irrational as the people they attack, and are willing to butcher one another in civil war to prove it. The New Skeptics are not the vanguard of a revolution that will create a humane world: we are doggedly working to become mere footnotes at best. Far from enlightening the world, from spreading reason's flickering flame as a candle in the dark, we are making skepticism to be a tale told by an idiot -- full of sound and fury and signifying nothing.
20 July 2013
Both the Stoics and the Epicureans advocated living according to nature, though each sought inspiration with different eyes. The Stoics believed in a universe bound up by a divine plan, and that a life of virtue meant living according to that plan, accepting what happened as the will of God -- or cosmic fate. Deities and their wills were more immaterial to the Epicureans, however, who saw more chaos than order in the cosmos and believed virtue lay in making the best of what we were given, of enjoying life while it lasted. There is wisdom in learning to adapt to whatever life throws at you, just as there is wisdom in enjoying it fully and not getting too distracted by mental chatter -- but there is more to living naturally than either.
What does it mean to live naturally? Outside of culture, beliefs, and ideology, human beings are fundamentally members of the animal kingdom in full standing. We use ideas to put distance between ourselves and that kingdom, but we are its subjects at every moment of the day whether we think we are or not. We are motivated by the same needs and instincts as every other animal on the planet, even if we dress those instincts up as feelings. Our instincts and needs are the products, not of perfect creation, but of imperfect evolution, of millions of years of trial, error, fix-it-on-the-fly biological compromise. To live naturally, first, is to respect that fact.
Before going forward, however, there is the matter of the naturalistic fallacy to address. Just because something is Natural does not mean it is good, or to be desired. Wariness and hostility toward strangers might be a natural instinct, but in modern times, chances are that the sudden arrival of group of strangers will not be a raiding party intent on killing your young, eating your fruit, and kidnapping your sisters -- a scenario our genes may be expecting when they produce anxiety in us at the appearance of an unknown person. Here is the wisdom of philosophy, in teaching us to overcome instincts that work to our detriment. However, we will presumably function best in the environment in which we evolved. That environment is not limited to the physical climate, but includes the kind of behaviors we're allowed to enact, the relations we engage in. Thus, humans are happier with one another than alone; we are happier sheltered from inclement weather than exposed to it; we are happier eating fresh food than rotting.
We must be conscious of our status as natural creatures, because instincts will manifest themselves with or without our permission. Hierarchies are ubiquitous among social animals, for instance, and in mammals there is often an alpha individual who rises to the top through strength, cunning, or in the case of certain primate species, cunning. Why then are we so surprised at the regularity with which political systems produce strongmen, and our easiness in accepting them? That monarchies persisted for so long, and that democracies become oppressive, is less a condemnation of political organization and more a mark against the systems which allow our natural weakness to lead to unnatural brutality. If Hitler had been the alpha male of a group of hunter-gatherers, the same strengths which brought him to power might have let him lead the tribe against threats -- and if they did not, or if those strengths failed him, he could have been displaced with ease. Civilization, however, has given alphas armies to expand their own power beyond natural limits, and given them means (like tradition or media outlets) to control by influence what they cannot touch by brute force.
We cannot turn back the clock and become hunter-gatherers. We must learn to work within the limits of our biology. In the realm of politics, the most rational response to our hierarchical weakness is to decentralize power as much as possible. Charismatic, strong, and cunning individuals will rise in every population and hold influence over people, but there is no reason their power must metastasize and become cancerous, dementing and corrupting them while abusing the public. Despite the lessons of the 20th century, political power, especially in the United States, is tending to become even more centralized, a trend that needs desperately to be reversed. Equally problematic is the power amassing in corporate entities, who are just as liable to tyranny as politicians, but who are even more wily, turning the very chains of regulation that we try to bind them by into weapons to whip their rivals and opponents with.
There is more to 'natural living' than politics, however. Evolution is starting to guide medicine more than in years past: we are now realizing that dropping anti-biotic bombs into our guts isn't the wisest course of action given our dependence on some bacterial species for basic processes like digestion. Some researchers suggest that our bodies need 'hostile' bacteria in them just to give our immune system something to do: otherwise, it attacks its own body. Or take matters of diet: just as a cat would not fare well on salad, or a dog on plankton, or a koala on anything other than eucalyptus leaves, so do we not fare well on many of the modern 'foodstuffs' filling the grocery store. In recent years a 'paleo' diet movement has arisen, maintaining that people should eat what we evolved to eat: meat, fruit, nuts, and some vegetables, leaving behind artificial food products like snack cakes, rolls, margarine, and imitation crab meat.
Many of the problems we face are caused by our attempting to live as something we are not, as creatures in a world of our choosing. We cannot drastically change our circumstances of living and expect the consequences to be marginal. We create an environment filled with fake food and no opportunities for the physical exertion our bodies were designed for, then wonder why obesity and diabetes have soared. We allow children to keep themselves overly stimulated with games on their tablets, or force them to sit in a box for seven hours a day quietly listening, and then label mark them as having attention deficit disorder. Perhaps it is our way of living, not ourselves, that are disordered. Maybe if children were taught the way they were evolved to be taught -- in the field, through the experience -- and played as they evolved to play, skin on skin with physical playmates -- they would not be bundles of neuroses. Perhaps if adults spent more time with one another and their families, and less time slaving at jobs producing profits for other persons, or stuck in traffic, they would not be as easy marks for depression and energetic religions.
Truth be told, I don't know what it means, entirely, to live naturally. I have some ideas, which is why I eat real food, voted libertarian in the last election, and practice simple living. In abstract, I can only say: to live naturally is to embrace our humanity -- to guard against our weaknesses while revelling in the experience of being human.
22 June 2013
German-language, English subtitles
What happens when three young soldiers of the class war accidentally take a prisoner? Jan, Peter, and Jule are working-class twenty somethings, each passionate about fighting corruption, injustice, and the values of consumerism, but with different means. Whereas Jule's placard-waving and protesting in the streets stays within bounds of acceptability, Peter and Jan go further. Breaking into the homes of the rich, they rearrange their furniture and leave the ominous message: Die Fettenjahre sind Vorbei. The days of plenty are over. Their actions are illegal, but do no harm other than rattling the cages of the powerful. When Jule sees her peaceful sign-holding friends beaten in the streets, loses her job, and is evicted in quick succession, she's invited by Jan (Peter Bruhl) to join him on a nightly raid. She's thrilled, but it results in their being surprised by the too-soon return of one of their targets. With no time to think, they act -- and kidnap him, fleeing into the mountains. There the revolutionaries and the fatcat live with one another as the kids grapple with what they should do next -- and with their consciences, for now they've gone far beyond their expectations. What does it mean to have a revolution?
As the four live together, they are forced by the virtue of interaction to see him less as a Class Enemy and more like a man -- one dangerous to their freedom, if he escapes, and one whose values they despise, but a man all the same. And for all their rage against the concentration and abuse of power, and for all of their petty acts of resistance, they are not vicious people. To hold him hostage and use media coverage to bring attention to their grievances is tempted, especially if they can get his wife to actually produce ransom money...but are they willing to pay that price? Their hold on the moral high ground is already tenuous, and they become even more uncertain as they talk with their foe, who reveals -- astonishingly -- that he, too, was once a class warrior. Their grievances are not new: another generation held them. That generation, the youth culture of the 1960s, once held every convention of society in contempt and sought to radically change it...but things change, and so do people. Or do they? The ardent beliefs of his captors stir something within the captive (whose name is Hartenburg), as he remembers his own youthful yearning for a better world, and wonders where he lost it.
I initially purchased this movie to both keep my ear for German tuned and to enjoy the passion and action of three rebels whose beliefs I have much sympathy for, and enjoy rewatching it ever so often just to witness the cross-generation conversation. In this age of overwhelming corporate power, the abhorrent triumph of consumerism and profiteering over the human soul and anything graceful, a movie like this is satisfying -- not only in portraying people putting resistance into action, but not losing sight of the fact that even 'enemies' are not as different from us. We are all vulnerable.
You may recognize the lead actor, Daniel Brühl playing Peter, from Joyeux Noel and Goodbye, Lenin!
03 June 2013
(Jawaharlal Nehru, 1889 - 1964)
I've recently acquired a copy of Glimpses of World History, which the first president of India, Pandit Nehru, produced in prison; the work consists of a series of letters to his daughter, Indira Gandhi, which convey a history of the world and his reflections on topics connected to it. Nehru is an extraordinary man; he first attracted my attention out of his connection to Gandhi, but when I read his biography I learned that he was something of a humanist.
"There can be no doubt that the founders of the great religions have been among the greatest and noblest that the world has produced. But their disciples and the people who have come after them have often been far from great or good. Often in history we see tat religion, which was meant to raise us and make us better and nobler, has made people behave like beasts. Instead of bringing enlightenment to them, it has often tried to keep them in the dark; instead of broadening their minds, it has frequently made them narrow-minded and intolerant of others. In the name of religion many great and fine deeds have been performed. In the name of religion also thousands and millions have been killed, and every possible crime has been committed.
What, then, is one to do with religion? For some people religion means the other world: heaven, paradise, or whatever it may be called. In the hope of going to heaven they are religious or do certain things. This reminds me of the child to behaves in the hopes of being rewarded with a jam puff or jalebi! If the child is always thinking of the jam puff or the jalebi, you would not say that it had been properly trained, would you? Much less would you approve of boys and girls who did everything for the sake of jam puffs and the like. What then, shall we say of grown-up persons who think and act in this way? For after all, there is no essential difference between the jam puff and the idea of paradise. We are all more or less selfish. But we try to train up our children so that they may become as unselfish as possible. At any rate, our ideals should be wholly unselfish, so that we may try to live up to them."
p. 37, Glimpses of World History. "The Sixth Century Before Christ".
Considering how much of his, Gandhi's, and other Free India persons' work was destroyed by the animosity between India's Hindus and the Muslims who would eventually create their own state, Pakistan, I imagine religion would have been a particularly grievous topic for him.
Posted by smellincoffee at 08:12
29 May 2013
"Strive not thou to become a god; the things of mortals best befit mortality."Pindar
Although they sometimes get underfoot, I delight in being followed on my morning walks by two dogs, a brother and sister who as puppies used to bark at me and then run for the safety of a concrete drainage pipe. At some point in their youth, they summoned up the courage to come out and meet me, and now they and I go up and down the street together. I enjoy their company, because they're a delight to watch -- chasing and playing with one another, going after squirrels, rabbits, cats, and chihuahuas (their natural enemies) with naked abandon, plowing through ditches full of water with their tails up and tongues out, as happy as it's possible to be without opposable thumbs. They have no inhibition, and when in their company, I loosen up and act with fewer inhibitions of my own; I feel more at home in the world.
For the first twenty years of my life, I was told that I was a spirit-thing in a body, a body which was bad inhabiting a world that was corrupt. But as much as I was told this horror, I never believed it. My home was Earth, not heaven; using my hands to interact with the world did more for my 'soul' than clasping them in prayer. I was a closet sensualist, running my fingers along the wild bounty of leaves in a bush, happily fetching the mail during a summer shower because it meant walking through soft mud and big water puddles in my bare feet. Discovering freethought and humanism did two great things for me: they allowed me to transcend from childhood to adulthood, to start standing on my own feet, thinking and living independently -- and they gave me a great, abiding truth: it's okay to be human.
There are many people who are ashamed of being human, and they're not all fundamentalist Christians. A contempt for the human experience is present in many religious and political ideologies, from Abrahamic scolds making people ashamed of their bodies to utopians like the Communists, who wanted to raise children with their ideology and create the "New Soviet Man". Even religions and philosophies as mild as Buddhism and Stoicism have an element of hostility in them. If a dog raises his ears and barks at a stranger menacing his food, he's following his instinct. If a man's heartbeat quickens and he feels aggressive toward someone menacing his own livelihood, he's suddenly guilty of desire or making judgment calls. But while there's great truth in the Stoic idea that much of our emotional suffering comes from judgments, I don't think we're as rational creatures as we like to think we are. Our bodies are not clothing: they are alive, and they respond to the world in ways our conscious brains has no control over. When someone attacks you and you're suddenly filled with energy and aggression, that's not because you had some desire not to be hit that's being unmet, or because you thought about and said "I do not like someone hitting me. I think I will go mental". Your body reacted. That's what it does. When someone starts flirting with your significant other and you get jealous , the jealousy stems not from your making some intellectual claim on their body, but because your genes see the other fellow, rightfully, as a competitor, and that kind of competition makes the world go round. It's a basic drive of life.
I think we live in our heads too much. We see ourselves as Rational creatures, not instinctive ones, but in truth most of our emotions are instinctive. That feeling we when we walk into a room of strangers is instinct; so is the rush of happiness at the sight of a friend's face, or a glow of pleasure when we're taken in a hug. Of course, there are limits to instinct. If a man starts flirting with a woman, chances are he has no interest in making her the mother of his kids: he may not even want sex. He just may find flirting fun. Here the philosophers and religious teachers have a point: there's nothing to be gained in growing furious over idle flirtation. Take their teaching to heart, and don't dwell on the anger.
I've been interested in spiritual matters for almost five years now, and I've passed through those years on a pendulum, taking spirituality on from two different directions: the Viking and the monk. There are times I embrace pleasure, and other times in which I back away from it; times wherein I celebrate wildness, and times that I try to cultivate more order. The Viking is engaged; the monk is introspective. Both have their strengths and their limitations: I don't like being mesmerized by pleasure any more than I like trapping myself in an introspective bubble. But more and more, the pendulum is slowing: time is creating the balance I've long yearned for.
Are humans intrinsically good, or intrinsically bad? Why should we be either? The world is not a fairy tale filled with Heroes and Villains. It is full of beings following their interests, which sometimes conflict. We need not heap such judgments upon ourselves. We are who we are: intelligent primates sentient in a world of wonder. We should accept ourselves, warts and all, and make the best of it -- neither retreating from the world like monks, nor being so distracted by its pleasures that we fail to ponder deeper meaning.
10 May 2013
Ever since I lost so much weight and began experiencing life in a fundamentally new way, feeling perhaps like a once-earthbound caterpillar feels like when it emerges from its cocoon and begins to fly around, I've been obsessed and driven by the idea of making everything in my life "lose weight" -- eliminating excess, concentrating on essentials, and making lean, potent effectiveness my goal. One idea I've been batting around, and intend to start working toward, is that of Zero Waste.
Waste has become endemic to modern living. Virtually everything sold in supermarkets comes wrapped in plastic, and even if it is sold by itself, as perhaps clothing is, cashiers will insist on throwing it in a plastic bag. Food, too, is wasted, filling the dumpsters of grocers, and the trash bins of people at home. The urban environment of America is waste made visible, in the form of suburban sprawl which forces people to make automobile trips for every need, and to drive hither and yon across the landscape because no place is near any other place worth going. Laws, too, promote waste: traffic lights mar every intersection in cities, even in quiet neighborhoods, forcing drivers to sit burning gasoline to go nowhere, obeying the god-machine above them and defying common sense: no one is coming, so go. And if they do go, a police cruiser materializes out of thin air and promptly fines them. And the waste is not merely financial: people work fifty and sixty hours a week enriching someone else, while their children grow up on the sidelines, most of their childhood lost forever to their parents.
I have grown to hate waste. Life is short; time is dear. This is part of the reason I've been thinking more on simple living and minimalism. I am motivated, too, by my abiding belief in personal responsibility. I consider frugality a virtue: I despise spending money for the same reason I loathe realizing something I own has no worth, and am disgruntled at throwing something away. This belief in personal responsibility is interwoven with my sense of citizenship: every bag of trash I might produce is a municipal burden, every second a lightbulb glows is a teensy bit of local coal burned (though happily, most of my local power is generated by a hydroelectric dam). Why use the city's resources when I can open a window and let the sun in? Why burn petroleum when I can bike? Considering the United States' dependence on importing goods, saving energy and using less isn't just personally responsible and fiscally wise; it's positively civic.
So, how to work toward Zero Waste? Some ideas I have had..
- Using hand tools instead of electrical ones. I had never used a hand-powered can opener before my electric one died; I'd never even seen one. But since then, I've found I enjoy the experience much more than listening to the screech of the machine.
- Avoiding processed foodstuffs (always sold in boxes, bags, and individually plastic-wrapped packages) and buying whole foods instead, like fresh greens that aren't shrinkwrapped. Not buying processed foods means cooking my own, and exercising complete control over what is used and what isn't -- and culinary uses can be found for everything.
- Bringing canvas sacks with me to the grocery store instead of using plastic bags; if said bags are used, take them back to the store. Both of the supermarkets I reluctantly patronize (no local grocers save seasonally-open produce shacks) have places to return plastic bags.
- Only using kitchenware that is durable: dishes and utensils meant for one-time uses are obscene. Plastic glasses are a conundrum they're more likely to survive falls than actual glasses, but they can't be recycled and possibly leach toxins over time.
- Finding simple entertainment offline, with people, instead of online. I choose to play frisbee with my nephew, for instance, instead of playing Call of Duty with him. It helps that he only has CoD on X-Box, and I am a PC purist and can't move quickly enough with one of those hand-held controllers..
- Turning off lights when not needed, especially wise considering that in the summer, incandescent bulbs not only waste 90% of the energy put into them, but that waste comes in the form of heat that fans and air-conditioning have to combat.
- Doing errands on foot or by bike instead of by car; I intend on putting a rack on my bicycle so that I can transport items like groceries with it. I also plan on moving closer to my work so that biking is more practical. I currently live three miles from work, but the first part of that is on a busy highway that is somewhat perilous on weekdays.
- Growing my own food in a garden; unfortunately, this is where some of my ideas conflict. I can live in the city and walk to work, or live outside it and have a garden, but doing both isn't possible until I can afford a small home with a backyard, or an apartment with green space that the landlord allowed gardening on. I have an uncle who gardens, and am thinking of 'apprenticing' myself to him to learn the lore.
- Refusing to buy goods that are shabbily made, or are made of materials (plastic) that can't be repaired. This means investing in a few high-quality items that retain their value.
- Making my own household goods, like shampoo or jam. Not only would I avoid using a plastic bottle, but I'm sure I could find a recipe that's environmentally friendly. The jam, and other food-preserving ideas, would depend on having a garden.
- Composting organic scraps that qualify: right now I just take biodegradable scraps out into the woods and scatter them. Composting them would help in gardening instead of scattering the nutrients willy-nilly.
- Using a clothesline instead of a dryer to dry clothes. This would also be less doable were I living in a city apartment, considering that moderns see a clothesline as an unsightly indicator of poverty. I'm also concerned about the everpresent humidity in Alabama preventing clothes from actually driving in the summers: if the air is saturated with moisture, it seems to me water would have a hard time evaporating from the clothes.
All these pertain to resources. I've yet to start running red lights, though these days I have to stop myself from treating them like stop signs, which is how I think they ought to be treated. I've been extraordinarily lucky in finding work in a field that is not only spiritually fulfilling (public service means helping people), but gives me enough hours to make a living but also allows for more leisure time than most people get. I work thirty hours a week on average, which is plenty for me considering my simple tastes. I decided years ago that working for money was not the life for me: I'd rather be poor and happy than wealthy and stressed. Money is only valuable inasmuch as it enhances our quality of lie.
Zero waste is an exacting goal, a high standard; I doubt that I will ever achieve it. But I intend to come as close as I can, so that my life brims over with value.
18 April 2013
Every morning, I run through the Forge. The Forge is not a physical location in the neighborhood where I run; it is a temporal location which can manifest itself anywhere. My morning runs always start off easily enough: I am immediately awakened by the bliss of moving swiftly through the universe, my legs churning beneath me. But soon enough they weaken, and my resolve to effect will into action is tested. This is the Forge. This, the place wherein I am most weak, is where I find my strength. For in those moments when the joy of running evaporates away and I know only the work of exercise, I am not merely laying the groundwork for easier running tomorrow. True, my stressed body is being tilled for growth: the message to my brain is being communicated, invest resources here. Build muscle. Strengthen bones. But more importantly, I am exercising the power of my mind, my will, over my emotions, over my body. I am pushing aside any inclination to laziness, to procrastination. I'm disciplining myself, forcing positive changes. I am applying a steady hand to the rudder of my soul, turning the ship of my being in the proper direction.
Exercise, running or cycling on my part, aren't the only places where the Forge is present although I experience it most tangibly there when I gallop down the road, focused only on the distant telephone pole I have chosen as my goal. It as though I am on a conveyor belt of ore, passing through a smelting fire, where the impurities are burned away and on the other side, behind the telephone pole, only gold emerges. The Forge is where weak things become strong, where iron becomes steel. We can all experience it: the Forge appears when we're raking leaves and think, "I'm tired of this; why don't I go inside and watch TV now, and do this tomorrow?" It appears when we're working on taxes, and tired of math, or when confronting other people and we wonder if maybe we couldn't just let the matter slide "this time". But nothing improves without effort, without energy, nor is anything maintained without the same. The best-built bridge will, in time, decay and fall. The most meaningful relationships will fade, the most beautiful garden will wilt, the best-toned muscles will soften without regular attention, without the chronic effort to turn will into action. And the effort has to be regular; the Forge works best when we pass through it repeatedly.
I don't regard the Forge with anxiety, or trepidation. Adversity is my ally, not my opponent.Because of the Forge, I can run faster, farther, longer, day by day. Because of it, I can spurn temptations. As Seneca wrote..
We see wrestlers, who concern themselves with physical strength, matching themselves with only their strongest opponents, and requiring those who prepare for a bout to use all their strength against them; they expose themselves to blows and hurt, and if they do not find one man to match them, they take on several at a time. Excellence withers without an adversary; the time for us to see how great it is, how much its force, is when it display its power through endurance.
And similarly, from the same source:
Fortune lays into us with the whip and tears our flesh; let us endure it. It is not cruelty but a contest, and the more often we engage in it, the stronger our hearts will be: the sturdiest part of the body is the one that is kept in constant use. We must offer ourselves to Fortune so that in struggling with her we may be hardened by her; little by little she will make us a match for her; and constant exposure to risk will make us despise dangers. So the bodies of mariners are tough from the buffeting of the sea, the hands of farmers calloused, the muscles of soldiers strong to enable them to hurl the javelin, the legs of athletes agile: in each case the part of the body exercised is the strongest. It is be enduring ills that the mind can acquire contempt for enduring them.
Both of those quotations are taken from Seneca's essay, "On Providence".
Posted by smellincoffee at 10:33