Archive for October, 2006

October 28, 2006

trust and hope

Religions and (ancient) philosophies have been very keen on emphasizing a few basic truths, among them the idea that “all will be well”. In the Torah the idea is found in Proverbs 3.5-6:

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own understanding.
Acknowledge him in all your ways,
and he will make your paths straight.

In the Christian New Testament the apostle Paul says (Romans 8.28):

And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose

The Bhagavad Gita, chapter 18 verse 58 claims likewise (Krishna speaking):

If thou are one in heart and consciousness with Me at all times, then by My grace thou shalt pass safe through all difficult and perilous passages

The Tao Te Ching (ch 16):

Woe to him who wilfully innovates
While ignorant of the constant,
But should one act from knowledge of the constant
One’s action will lead to impartiality,
Impartiality to kingliness,
Kingliness to heaven,
Heaven to the way,
The way to perpetuity,
And to the end of one’s days one will meet with no danger.

The stoic version would itself not be much different: “do not worry because you cannot change the course of events anyway”. This feature even recurs in Kant who posits the incredible idea that we must act morally no matter what and that ‘God’ will see to it that our eternal soul gets repaid with happiness in the end (Critique of Practical Reason, p. 224).

I must admit that i don’t quite know what to make of all this. The idea that a good person needn’t worry could obviously be simply explained away as a simple trick to get people to be good; and therein must indeed lie some amount of truth. However, the comfort of such a thought reaches far beyond any usefulness it might have for social control. If we strip the above ideas of their religious garb – demythologizing them -, we are left with an idea that nevertheless retains much of its power. Even a godless man like myself cannot but find a substantial amount of peace when he (always belatedly) remembers that “i can always structure my life in such a way as to enjoy it”. This is a fundamentally positive outlook, but one that seems necessary, if only to get us to go on living; it is precisely because the link between “positive” and “necessary” (in ethical terms: being good must be good for you, somehow) is so fascinating that it resurfaces in just about all religions and life-philosophies.

(Translations: Net Bible, Aurobindo’s translation of the BG, D.C. Lau’s translation of the TTC)

October 28, 2006

Alms for the poor

Walking through Paris a few early mornings ago with a newly arrived friend on my side, we found ourselves hailed by a young man breaking away from two of his friends and striding towards us crying “Pardon!”. As he got closer, sure enough he asked for one Euro to make a phone call. I was not in the mood, and he looked well enough dressed in a new black leather jacket as to not really require the money for his stated or any other purpose. So we said no and proceeded to half-way ignore him as we strode on. His two friends caught up and the three of them finally gave up, though not without him calling us “fils de putes”, which he also translated into English (in case we hadn’t understood). A while later as my friend and i sat in a bakery eating our croissants and drinking our Lavazza coffee, the young man showed up again and walked into the store repeating his demand and even offering to give change back. Wanting to be rid of him, i gave him a 2 Euro piece but failed to get any change back. This little Parisian farce brings two thoughts to mind.

First, i probably should have insisted on him giving me change back for my two Euro coin. This would have changed the nature of our transaction from a bullying for money into something closely enough resembling a standard economic transaction; we would then have both felt ourselves to have been on a level playing field: he would not have gone away (probably) muttering what a “fucking idiot” i was, and i in turn would not have been stuck with the muddy feeling of having been walked all over. In effect, i should have turned the whole situation into a game, taking the lead on this annoying personage and enforcing a relationship that was more fair (or less unfair) that what actually transpired. I think he would also have been better off – if only by having gained a modicum of respect for the stranger i was to him.

Second, i perhaps should have stayed my course and not given him anything, but rather shooed him out of the bakery – so as not to encourage that sort of obnoxious behavior. That is the standard reasoning of the countless thousands who give only to beggars who are doing something, be it juggling, making music or giving them directions. This is the spirit of capitalism par excellence. It is obviously not the only rule to go by in such situations, but i can’t say i have found a good reason not to follow it, given the scarcity of my means at any rate.

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October 16, 2006

a working philosopher

I am considering quitting my PhD studies and getting a real job. I can explain this forthcoming decision in two ways. First: in accordance with my previous post on experimental ethics (and the whole flavor of my philosophy here), it would behoove me to not theorize about society and political economy from within the confines of my 12-square-meter ivory tower in T├╝bingen, but rather to find employment in the area about which i am spinning my philosophical tales. In effect, i need somewhere to test my theories so that i can improve upon them as well as actualize them. A personal ethics can, of course, be practiced anywhere and under all circumstances; a political philosophy cannot. And since my political philosophy is, at the moment, heavily leaning towards a restructuring of the economy through something similar to insurance companies, i believe it might prove most useful for me to find a job (as a software engineer) in an insurance company. I could then move up through the ranks while improving upon my theories through observation before i get far enough to start trying to implement them.

My second justification runs thus: two of my strongest and most present characters are the philosopher and the engineer. As one might well imagine, they rarely hit it off too well, and usually end up on opposite corners of my poor little mind, shaking their tiny little fists at one another. Sequentially dividing up my time between them doesn’t seem fair to either one, as both would much prefer to be first in line. It therefore seems that i must resort to some sort of compromise to keep them from keeping me awake late every night. One compromise would be to work part-time while writing the PhD part-time. However, since the philosopher doesn’t even really care about the diploma (he’s more of a romantic visionary than an academic analyst) and would much rather be at liberty to think whatever needs to be thought, whenever it needs to be thought about, a second compromise might fit even more snugly between these two cerebral protagonists: to work full-time in an appropriate industry and philosophize during the remaining hours, using the work as a tool in service of the philosophizing. I would be a working philosopher!

Now, i can already hear the distant rumor of a splattering of objections, the first on the horizon being that, well, as consistent as i have proven in the past, you’ll just wait and see. And frankly, that is exactly what i plan on doing myself (while actively looking for a job). A second objection should also be straightway addressed. What will happen if, a few weeks or months into my new job, i realize that my philosophy has drifted in a very different direction so that my current position is no longer relevant to my endeavour? The answer is that i’ll move on to another job. The most basic injunction underlying my philosophy is: examine your life so as to improve upon it. That means that wherever i find myself, however far off in left field i stand (wow, i just used a baseball metaphor!), i can always move forward (so much for the metaphor). I won’t try to answer your multitudinous other objections before you even get around to formulating them, but will leave that to one-on-one encounters in the comments, should the need arise. Speaking of which, that same comments section is now very much open.

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October 16, 2006

positive dialectics

Origen is one of my great heros. By my reading of his work, he had a very specific (ifOrigenes not very novel) idea of how we acquire knowledge about what is good. Being a christian theologian, he was very much concerned with the bible, which was the foundation of his ethics. His idea basically runs thus: read the bible and do what it tells you to do, then you will become a better person and will then be able to re-read the bible and understand it better, do what you now understand it to be prescribing, etc. Origen didn’t think one ever arrived, having become perfect, but that this back and forth movement (hence my calling it a dialectic) should accompany one throughout one’s life. Before i re-work this into a more contemporary form, i should point out a few specifics: first, Origen assumes that you really only understand something when you do it. This is admittedly not very novel and might seem self-evident, but nevertheless runs afoul of every current brand of ethics – all those theorists trying to tell us what to do without ever trying their ideas out (on themselves or anywhere). Second, it is a basically optimistic view, one that assumes things can get better, but never assuming that they must (as a Hegelian would): this doesn’t happen on its own, but requires a fair amount of personal involvement. Finally, Origen is here giving us a nothing more than a reworking of the johannine Jesus: “if you hold to my teachings, you are truly my disciples, then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” We will return to the freedom idea at the end of this post.

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October 12, 2006

meditation

meditationMeditating (in the form of a quietly sitting cross-legged upon my chair and trying hopelessly to think about nothing much) helps reboot the mind. The hardest part is, clearly, to stop thinking; the best means found over the past few millennia seems to be to think about your breathing – ie about a simple and ever repeating activity. At one level, the no thought mode seems to simply allow you to start a ‘fresh’ train of thought that will not stop itself until your next meditation session.

Naturally, meditation does a bit more than simply turn the page in your personal mental diary. The attempt to not think forces you to move back a step from yourself and from your body (ie your place in the world). I find it useful to try to picture my own body meditating. This is not in order to “separate my soul from my body and go wandering around in spiritual space”, it seems to rather serve a much more prosaic and practical purpose, namely to remind me of two things:

  1. it is not ‘me against the world’. A combative attitude doesn’t accomplish much at all, except to generate unnecessary stress. I am not a separate entity from the world, but a part of the world, and i should work with it, not against it.
  2. do not worry. There is always a good solution to every problem i will ever encounter. And nothing is, in the end, all that important.

I do not meditate every day, but only when i feel the need to (when i feel lost and stressed). Getting past the first (20?) minutes of slowly slowing thoughts is real tough, and i don’t always make it that far. But when i do, a “peace that passes understanding” gradually creeps up on me and i become in some very simple way … happy.

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October 12, 2006

my very own psychological theory

Over the past few days i’ve been trying to formulate a personal psychological theory. So far it runs something like this:

People (or at least myself) are made up of a multitude of different emotions, desires, virtues, vices, etc. that at different points in time coalesce into one or more characters or personae under the influence of their then current environment. That is, in certain situations my ‘french’ or ‘american’ characters will show up or perhaps it will be my ‘philsopher’ or my ‘computer programmer’ personae that will be called forth by specific events. When more than one character is called forth and the two or more of them can’t quite agree on something, then a third more objective characters also appears (the one that calls itself ‘me’) and tries to resolve the problem between the philosopher who only wants to write a great and famous philosophical work and the computer programmer who can’t concentrate on the book anymore and who wants to just work a good old-fashioned real job. When the problem is resolved, all three characters fade back into the background of my mind and my standard, mostly unconscious self gets me back to doing whatever it is i was doing or just now decided to do.

I realize that, naturally, things aren’t quite that simple. Namely, the decisions i arrive at by finding a just compromise between my multiple characters do not actually stand all that long before a mood swing throws them out and i have to start all over again. The biggest problem is dealing with these mood swings (they remind me of Kierkegaard’s aesthete who is suddenly, but ever so briefly enthralled with perpetually shifting interests). I could, of course ignore them, but that would not be a solution. I could also try to minimize them, but that doesn’t seem to work too well. Or, i could try to discern their general direction (a moody moving average) and ignore the day-to-day jumps. That is what i’ve been doing of late, but it is certainly no more than a stop-gap measure that desperately needs an upgrade.

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October 9, 2006

States, Corporations & Insurance Companies

I believe our societies have come to an organizational impasse, one where states are pitted against gigantic corporations while at the same time being burdened with the duty of providing for all aspects of their citizens’ lives. This situation is proving ever more difficult to sustain because some states can no longer stand up to market forces or corporations and also because these states can no longer financially fulfill all of their social duties.

A solution, i believe, is to divide the economic sphere of society into three types of entities instead of just two. States must be split into two separate entities: on the one hand a minimal state (S) responsible for legislation and infrastructure (more or less the libertarian state) and on the other hand Insurance Companies (I) that would pick up all social responsibilities of our current states (social security, retirement, etc.). Corporations (C) would remain. This new division of power would have a number of advantages.

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October 8, 2006

lying

Some still hold to the unassailable idea that it is never acceptable to lie. But consider this: is it acceptable for me to lie to you if i can convince you afterwards that i was right in lying to you and in such a way that you still trust me after the fact just as much as before the incident? Is it ever admissible to lie in any other case?

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October 5, 2006

decisions

Some people do not seem to have a hard time deciding what to do next. Others are plagued with doubt, second thoughts and plain good old uncertainty. I do not know why this is so. For the time being i would, however, rather answer another question, namely: How should the undecided go about deciding?

Take the hardest cases, the big, life-changing decisions. I think most people tend to follow what everyone else they know (and like) does. In terms of goals, they decide according to the goals current in their milieu. In a sense, they are deciding to do what the fewest people around them will object to: they are minimizing the amount of explaining they will have to do. Seen from a different perspective, they are just doing what they feel like doing, and if they’re unsure, they just mull over it until their feelings fall into place and they just know what to do. Or else they just do it and get used to the new situation (those are the hurried people).

But what to do if one has no milieu? What should one do if one precisely doesn’t want to follow the crowd (off the cliff)? In the end one does have to settle for what feels right. That’s just how human beings are wired. But if nothing feels right, how do you figure out which possibility feels the less not-right?

A good stoic or daoist would say, it doesn’t really matter and a christian would add (among other less interesting things) that you just have to make the best of the final situation, whatever you do decide. This is certainly my default position. What are other options?

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October 5, 2006

new ethics wiki

I have now created a new ethics wiki. Therein i give a very rough outline of what i think this new ethics could look like. Specifically, the new ethics is defined as a critical method for doing ethics and therefore has no specific ethical content. The aim is to provide a framework within which we can each work on and work through whatever system of ethics we currently have (whether we are explicitly aware of it or not).