Heat Wave

fireball

It’s September in Southern California, and that inevitably means a heat wave. The air conditioner blasts here in my upper room essentially all day while the fan struggles to keep up. It makes things bearable. They say that the secret to enduring the heat is not fighting it- to just let your body sweat and adjust to a new standard. I’ve gone for that idea from time to time, but today is not one of those days. Today, the rumble of the AC is my constant companion.

What I find remarkable about this heat wave that has brought us temperatures in the 90’s and 100’s is not its location on the calendar or its severity, it’s the comments I hear about it. I don’t mean simple griping. That’s a given. I even find myself uttering the inane, obligatory, “it is HOT.” The comments I find surprising are the ones in which surprise is articulated. “What is happening?” “How weird is this for SEPTEMBER?” “Why is this happening?”

Here’s the thing. We get a heat wave every September. We usually get one in January too, and people get a lot more excited about that one. But then it goes away and gets cold again (as cold as it ever does around here) and February goes back to being especially chilly, and life goes on. It reminds me of an unfortunate reality of man, myself most certainly included. (I suppose that was redundant to reinclude myself, but I want to emphasize that I am by no means immune to this malady.)

Our memories are both selective and short. It isn’t that they are defective, necessarily. Indeed, one of the foremost pediatric neurosurgeons in the country once claimed that the human mind has enough room in it for all of the knowledge discovered in all of the history of mankind. (Accessing that information in a timely manner, as well as inputting it in a timely manner is another matter entirely.) We choose to use our minds this way. We forget, we are surprised, and we gripe in our stunned condition. Yet the heat wave came last year too, and at the same time.

Every winter the news freaks out about how cold it is. Then in the summer they freak out about how hot it is. The populace is right there with them, for the most part. Why are we surprised about things that happen almost exactly the same every year?

We return to the gym and we’ve forgotten that it’s hard. We drive through Los Angeles at one am on a Tuesday and we’re shocked that there’s traffic. And every September and January, we’re surprised at the heat wave.

I don’t know why this is. I only know that I want to remember things. Life is a little less scary that way. The heat wave will come next year too, and I’ll turn on a ceiling fan and get on with my life. Life is full of the unexpected, but it also isn’t.

I suppose it depends on what we remember, and on what we expect.

I’ve read a fair number of accounts of prisoners of war during the various conflicts of the modern age, and those that managed to live through their experiences and return to some sort of normalcy typically agree on a certain principle for looking at the world. It is perhaps articulated best by a P.O.W. in the infamous Hanoi Hotel during the Vietnam War. When asked who were the first kind of people to break in prison- to give up and die- he naturally responded that it was the pessimists. This makes sense, as they never had any hope. However, he was quick to add that the optimists were quick to follow in their footsteps and fall next, succumbing to the horror of their circumstances. This is counter-intuitive. We’re always told to stay positive, and in truth, there is much good to be found in that advice. Yet what he calls optimism others might call denial. Those he referred to as the optimists in prison were always going on about how they would all be rescued by Christmas, and then they would smile and caress their hope as it brought them through agony. But then Christmas would come and the rescue wouldn’t. They would be shattered until they lighted upon another idea. By the spring we’ll be rescued. They would then shift to this being their mantra, remembering that despite all of the bad, they would be out by spring. Then spring would come, and with it no rescue. It required a varying number of crushing disappointments for these optimists to lose it and give up, but they all did. They had hope, but it was imaginary. Their timelines were arbitrary. True, the glass is half full, but if it’s full of antifreeze, you still shouldn’t drink it.

The ones who made it through the war without cracking up or dying were what this officer called the hopeful pragmatists. They were the ones who realized that they had received a beating yesterday, a beating today, and in all likelihood, they’d get another one tomorrow. Their hope was not that every man of them would be rescued- that was impossible. Their hope was not that they would be rescued at a certain point. Their hope was that the day would eventually come when old glory stormed the castle. They had no idea when this would be or which ones of them would make it, but this hope, this true hope, kept them going. They did not succumb to the bitterness of their circumstance by denying hope, nor did they fabricate it. They hoped in what was real, and they remembered what had happened already so they were not surprised when it came again. Eventually, their hope was proved substantial. Rescue did come, but it came long after the optimists and the pessimists had died alike.

Circumstances are hard. It’s hot. We’re unhappy with X, Y, or Z. Putting a smile on your face won’t solve all of your problems in an instant, but neither will carrying  a wounded sense of defeatism. Life is what it is. There’s a lot of beauty around if you know where to look for it. Even in the darkest of situations, there is some good to be found. Even if we don’t know when things are going to get better, they will at some point- either for us or for some of our brothers in arms. I’m not saying don’t hope for big things- great change never comes without that sort of audacity. Only let us remember that it gets hot every September, and then we can deal with it accordingly, without the burden of shock slowing us down.

I want to remember things. I want to be a hopeful pragmatist. Do you?

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“They’ve Done Studies”

I’m sure you’ve experienced it, just as I have.  Frankly I imagine you’ve been guilty of it, just as I have.  You’re having a conversation with someone, a friendly debate, perhaps, and then they pull out the trump card.  “They’ve done studies.”  All of the sudden your momentum is lost.  Your eloquent, persuasive words die on your lips.  The heavens open up above your opponent and he receives the philosophical victory, every good point you’ve previously made now null and void.  “Why did ‘they’ have to do ‘studies’?” you cry.

In all seriousness, this is a problem in our culture.  Raising the flag of anonymous studies (that just so happen to prove your point perfectly) garners much more support than it deserves.  Or, similarly, people will often employ another tactic: the random statistic of dubious origin.  (83.476592% of statistics are made up on the spot, right?)

There are several problems with this trend, the first being that of authority.  Claiming “they’ve done studies” without giving any real information about the study is not an empirical claim.  It is an appeal to authority.  And more often than not, who are people appealing to when they cite “studies”?  Anonymous.  Boy, that anonymous sure has been right about a lot of things.  We’d better accept his opinion without any critical thinking.  It’s no different from someone saying “You should believe me because someone really smart agrees with me.”  “Who?”  “I don’t know.  Somebody smart.”

Appealing to authority without providing the authority is as ridiculous a tactic as it seems.  Let’s stop encouraging it.

The second problem I see is that we uphold these various studies because… we’ve carefully examined the parameters, metrics, assumptions, procedures, and underlying philosophies behind them and we’ve come to the conclusion that they are logically sound?  No, not so much.  Usually our reasoning is more along the lines of, “Look!  Those guys in white coats agree with us!”  And unfortunately, that’s usually where it ends.

My point in this second problem is just to say this: though most are probably valid, there are a lot of bad studies out there.  (Even among “studies” that actually exist and have taken place.)  A logical progression is only as good as the givens it starts from.  What assumptions were made at the beginning of the experiment?  Is putting this theory to the test in a laboratory setting going to affect what happens?  What about observer bias?   And on and on and on.  Scientists, unfortunately, are not infallible.  So let’s not be intimidated by the letters following their names, and let’s look into their methods.

Finally, one of my biggest complaints with this trend is this: when claiming “they’ve done studies”, common sense often goes flying out of the window.  For example: I once had a conversation in the blogosphere about the natural state of man.  Fall where you like on the issue, persuading you here is not my intent.  I mentioned the selfishness of children in this debate.  The first words out of a child’s mouth are never “Thank you”, as Tim Chaddick once pointed out.  A child has to be taught to share, but he is born knowing how to take.

My counterpart in the debate told me that I was wrong.  They’ve done studies.  (uh oh)  To his credit he found a link to an article about the study he was referencing and posted it.  That is where a lot of people stop.  Many times, I’ve probably stopped there.  “Darn.  He has a link.  It must be a valid point.”  Luckily, I went and read the parameters of the study, as reported by this article.  The scientists claimed that babies are not selfish because they showed different babies videos of other babies sharing a toy and not sharing a toy.  How did they measure selfishness from this, you may ask.  By counting the number of times the baby blinked while watching.  I kid you not.  The babies didn’t blink enough, so they’re not selfish.  That “whooshing” sound you hear is common sense being thrown out of the window.

We’ve talked about the limitations of science on this blog before (Specifically, here) and it bears repeating.  Science is not able to measure everything, much to the chagrin of reductionist materialists everywhere (that’s just fancy wording for ‘people who think that every single concept, feeling, object, and idea in the universe is explainable through and caused by subatomic particles in motion).  Science is amazing.  It has given us innumerable blessings.  It can’t explain everything.  Let’s not be so quick to part with common sense because “they’ve done studies.”  Next time someone tries to pawn this trump card off on you, ask them who performed the study, and more importantly, who funded the study?  Ask them where you can read the study yourself so you can see what measurements they took , and how they took them.  And on and on and on.  If the study is a) real and b) valid, then you’ll have learned some valuable information in your research.

You all should take my word on this.  83.476592% of people who do go on to lead better lives.  They’ve done studies.

New Immorality

We are a clever species.  We not only have the capability of fooling others; we have the ability of fooling ourselves.  Having never been inside the mind of an animal, naturally, I do not know if any other creature is able to lie to itself, but we most certainly are able.  It is an astounding thing, rationalization.  The very source of an untruth, through a series of choices and thoughts, may actually come to believe in his own lie.  We see it all the time.

In my experience, this typically occurs in one of two situations: 1) I want something I know is not good. 2) I’ve done something wrong.
In the midst of processing through either situation, a choice to lie to ourselves appears.  We often take it.  We often, clever as we are, forget that we have done so, having shifted our view of the world ever-so-slightly.  They say people don’t change.  Look in a mirror.  Are you the same person you were ten years ago?  I know I’m not.  Small choices over time affect us, for better or for worse.  This is true in an individual, but I believe it is true for a society and a culture as well.  Small choices, slight shifts in view, change how everything is interpreted.

We, as a people, have strong desires, and often they are desires we know to be wrong.  This doesn’t make us desire any less fervently, however.  Possessing this strange skill of being able to tell a lie to ourselves and then eventually to believe it, we have given reign to many desires we used to know were wrong.  But we don’t know any more.

We painted over our canvas.  The truth is likely still buried beneath the layers of paint somewhere, but uncovering it is laborious, difficult work if we deal only in introspection.  As I said before, I believe that we as a society have painted over the truth, wanting our desires to be considered right.

Popular morality today is different than it used to be.  How could it not?  Ever age has its own set of vices and virtues, traps that ensnare it and rays of light that shine through.  Morality is not a thing to be decided upon by men, but we have done so over time.  Having strong, yet inappropriate desires, we have come up with a solution.  I think I will never hear it put better than Tim Chaddick, pastor of a Los Angeles church, once said, “Self-denial is the new immorality.”

I think he’s right.  In looking at what our culture values and what it frowns upon, it is rather striking how convenient our morality is.  I am to believe that my desires are good and as long as I’m not “hurting anybody” (whatever that may mean), I’m good.  I should never deprive myself.  I owe this to myself.  I deserve to be happy, regardless of how I get that happiness.

I urge you not to misunderstand my next point, for as I’ve said before I believe Epicureanism and Stoicism to be equivalent evils, and the self-righteous man is probably worse off in some ways than someone who isn’t even trying.  Something being hard doesn’t necessarily qualify as good simply because it is difficult, I understand.  Thus, with all of my qualifiers out of the way, I ask this question: since when is doing the right thing so easy?

I venture into strange waters now for the sake of telling you a story, but I think that the heart of the tale is an important one.  Many years ago, when I was a student, the issue of being under torture came up.  I cannot remember why or in what context we were speaking about torture; I only remember a conversation I had afterwards with another student.  The hypothetical situation arose where one of us was to be put under the strains of torture, being interrogated for the location of our hidden comrades.  I had stated something along the lines of saying that it was a hard and tragic thing, but you have to hold back confession, because other people are depending on you.  If the enemy finds your friends, bad things are sure to follow.  This shocked the other student, who insisted that you have to give in because they’re hurting you, and no one would expect you to endure such pains.

I am not a veteran.  I have never served in the military.  I have no idea what undergoing torture must be like, but I know that giving up the lives of your friends because you’re hurting is not right.  Yet I dare say the sympathy that the other student expressed seemed right to many others.  It was inconceivable to them that you must hold out in such a situation.

I think this is a symptom of the lies we have told ourselves.  If it is uncomfortable, we think it’s wrong.  We look out for ourselves first and foremost.  This is extremely convenient, and it aligns with our baser desires.  Notions of sacrifice and selflessness make for good stories, but we discard them in everyday philosophy.

“Self-denial is the new immorality.”

We’ve told ourselves another lie, and that is that we are all counter-culture.  How absurd when so many people share the same opinions, opinions that are extremely mainstream today?  Let’s be truly counter-culture.  Let’s be selfless.

A Moral Compass

In our society we have many scapegoats, but none more prominent than “the extremist”.  When I read the news, when I watch movies, even when I listen to people speak I hear a condemnation of the “extremes.”  I find it a fascinating notion.  Look around you and see if you agree with me- especially in politics.  Most of the world’s problems seem to be due to “extremists.”  The implication seems to be that if everyone was more moderate in their beliefs and feelings the world would be a better place.  Many, many people that I know believe something akin to what I have just described.  In fact, I imagine that you as the reader do not yet take issue with the idea either.  I find this general societal condemnation of extremes intriguing, and I wish to delve into it further.

Aristotle had an interesting theory called the golden mean.  When we apply it to philosophy, what it basically means is that virtues exist in the middle of two opposing vices.  For example: we would place cowardice on one end of the “moral spectrum” and recklessness on the other.  In between these two, according to Aristotle, would be courage.  In the center we find virtue, and on the extremes we find vice.

This is a tempting philosophy, for on the surface it seems quite rational and self-apparent, but when one digs deeper, problems begin to arise.  Models of the universe are wonderful and useful tools, but sometimes it is helpful to bring the issue back into a less abstract form.  Imagine a cowardly soldier.  This man, fearing for his own life, will not charge when the orders are given.  The lives of others mean less to him than his own as he clutches his knees and trembles, refusing to leave.  Imagine now the “opposite” vice.  Think of a rash and a reckless soldier.  The company has been stalking through the jungle in enemy territory.  They are all bunched together and not yet ready to attack, but our reckless soldier becomes impatient and points his gun in the air and fires of several rounds, lustily yelling for war.  The enemy is now aware of our troop’s location and trouble is sure to follow.  The rash soldier cares more for his own glory and for carrying out his own whims more than he cares for the lives of his compatriots.

Our society seems to preach that we need a balance between the two extremes.  If cowardice is on the far left of the “morality spectrum” and recklessness is on the other, the coward would be told to move more to the right and the rash man would be told to move left.  Still, this seems mostly reasonable, but here is where it breaks down.

A coward does not need to be more reckless.  Neither does a reckless man need to be more cowardly.  Both men require courage.

To take another example, imagine we have a spendthrift on one side and a miser on the other.  The spendthrift spends his money wildly, throwing it at whoever asks it of him and buying all that he desires for himself.  The miser, on the other hand, squeezes every penny as if the world depended on it.  If someone in need were to ask him for aid he would clench his fists tightly and refuse.  He buys himself only what he needs to barely survive, never spending for joy, never being generous to others.  Both these men have serious problems.  However, the solution does not lie in compromise.  The spendthrift does not need to be more miserly, he needs to appropriate his funds more wisely.  Likewise the miser needs not to spend like there’s no tomorrow; he needs to appropriate his funds more wisely.

When we speak of romance we talk of completing one another.  If we apply our theory of the golden mean to a husband and a wife, we begin to see its absurdity.  For, if we wanted to be the best couple possible, we would have to find a partner who had exactly the opposite vices as us.  Can you imagine the fights that would occur between the spendthrift and the miser?  Between the coward and the reckless one?  As a couple they would certainly not balance out.  The miser and the spendthrift would be both in debt and ungenerous to those who are in need.  The coward and the reckless one, well, they would not be in a relationship very long, honestly, each caring for themself more than the other.

Vices do not balance out.  Extremism is not the issue.

We have learned to perceive morality as a spectrum, but the spectrum we have been given is incorrect.  You may have heard of the “moral compass.”  We tend to visualize this as an explorer’s tool, but what if it was the compass of an architect instead?  We have a center point, the focus, if you will, and we have the pencil on the outside.  By holding the focus in place the pencil can draw a perfect circle around it.  Every point on the line is the same distance from the center.  We can rotate the pencil around and around and around, but it will never “balance out” to the mean.  We can only arrive nearer to the center by closing the compass and bringing the pencil nearer to the focus.  We are either closer to morality or we are farther from it.  The spectrum goes in one direction only, and virtue lies on one end of it, vice on the other.

I have long held Epicureanism and Stoicism as equivalent evils.  In both cases life is being lived in a way it was not intended to be lived.  Both philosophies have selfishness at their core, ways of self-fulfillment.

I have a sinking suspicion that selfishness lies at the heart of all vice.  We are told to love ourselves above all else in this society, but is that the best thing?  Let us take the matter to its extreme.  What do we call those who love themselves more than any other thing?  Sociopaths.  Narcissists.  But then, I digress.

The coward is as selfish as the reckless man; both disregard the lives of their friends.  I don’t have time to delve into my thoughts on selfishness in this post, but suffice it to say, this is my point: virtue lies at one extreme, and vice lies at the other.

Opposite vices miss the mark of virtue equally.  Two wrongs can never make a right.

Ambition

There is an item not much debated in our culture that I would like to examine.  It is ambition.  This seems an easy topic at first glance, after all, we are told all of our lives to be ambitious.  “Shoot for the moon and even if you fall short you will land among the stars”, they say.  (An ironic statement, for as we all know, the stars are farther away than the moon, but I digress).  My question is: do we value ambition too much?  Do we value it too little?  Why do we value it?

I believe our culture is very interested in “how?”, but not as interested in “why?”.  It is very apparent that ambitious people seem to do things that they are remembered for, and largely being a race that is scared to death of dying, we seem to find comfort in the idea that we will be remembered on earth.

When I think of an ambitious person, I immediately think of Napoleon Bonaparte.  It is hard to find a more ambitious man than he.  From the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s he went from being a nobody in the French Army to becoming the grand emperor of the French Empire.  He essentially conquered all of Europe and other territories as well.  At one point he fought against the Ottomans, the British, the Russians, and others all at the same time!  He is to this day considered to be one of the greatest commanders of all time as well as a father of modern military strategy.  The man was ambitious.

However, it was quite a shocking revelation to me, when I was studying Napoleon a few years ago, that he was not a hero.  Napoleon is a villain of history- one of the scourges of Europe.  He was an extremely ambitious man, but not a positive mark on the timeline.  Let us review.

Between five and seven million people died in the Napoleonic Wars (and that includes many civilians).  The democracy of France was overthrown by Napoleon, the economy was ruined, and Western civilization was kept in a state of perpetual war for a quarter of a century.  But why?  What was the cause for all of this war and destruction?

Simple ambition.  Napoleon wanted to do something great, and to him that meant ruling the world for France.  It was ambition for ambition’s sake.

There is a danger, I believe, in arriving at another destructive conclusion: that one should do nothing but scrape by and spend all of one’s free waking hours in front of the television, never accomplishing anything.  We all know that this is not the best way of living.  When we have a friend who has fallen into a pattern of laziness we tell him to get some ambition.  He needs some drive to go out and accomplish something.  So we are then left with the question: which is it?  Is ambition bad or is it good?

The answer lies in purpose.  We are told that life has no purpose, that there is no great purpose in much, if not all, of what we do.  This is a dangerous philosophy, and one that leads to a road stained red with consequences.  For if nothing has a purpose, we begin to ignore consequences.  We become selfish.  Selfish, ambitious men are very dangerous, as history has shown time and time again.

One can have great ambition to build orphanages in Africa.  One can want to provide clean water to every neighborhood in the country, or in the world.  One can be ambitious to find the cure for cancer and save millions of lives!

Are these not good things?

The things themselves are.  But I assure you, even Napoleon thought that he was doing good.

The conclusion I arrive at is this: selfish ambition is incredibly destructive, leads to harming others, and creates a dissatisfied individual.  Napoleon’s life was filled with frustration, pain, and disappointment, despite his great accomplishments.  Do you want to be the first to find a widespread cure for cancer?  Excellent, but why do you want that?  Do you want to save the sick and the hurting?  Do you enjoy a challenge, and you want to see if the enigma has a solution?  Or do you merely want to be seen?  If you could find the cure, but your name would never appear on it, never be published, would you still do it?

Our knee-jerk reaction is “Of course!”, but would you?

Ambition is a volatile chemical.  Accomplishing great things is all well and good, and if you have a positive, constructive desire, I encourage you to work hard at achieving it- but not for yourself.  People who have great ambition for themselves lose sight of what is important, and tragedy always seems to follow.  Everything has a purpose, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Consideration of “why?” should precede any great undertaking.

Worship

I hope you all had a wonderful Christmas.  I had an excellent one, filled with family, friends, and of course, gifts.  One gift I received got me pondering a bit- my brother gave me a book entitled “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of World Mythology”.  It’s a very interesting book at first glance, and I am sure to enjoy it further as I continue reading, but my point in all of this is to introduce some thoughts that the book brings to mind.

In studying ancient cultures and civilizations, one of the things I find most baffling upon a cursory glance is man’s penchant for constructing idols and worshiping them.  The ancient Semitic peoples had their Baals and their Asherah poles and their statues of Dagon and Moloch.  The Egyptians, of course, had their Ra and their Isis and their Horus.  We are perhaps more familiar with the Greek pantheon and the Roman adaptations with their Zeus and their Venus and Ares and Hermes and on and on and on.  It is a practice that strikes us- the modern man, as quite absurd.  To build oneself a statue that he knows he has built with his own hands and then to ascribe some sort of value to it, bowing down and worshiping it, is bizarre behavior.

The practice was not unique to the peoples I mentioned, as you are well aware, I’m sure.  The Celts and the Persians and the Mayans and the tribes of Africa (with which I am less familiar) and many others (probably all of the others) built idols for themselves to worship.  We scoff at this- as we rightly should, in a sense.  Statues are not worthy of our worship, certainly.  We have been taught that we are men enlightened.  We are men of science and men of wisdom, unswayed by the cold winds of superstition that blew about our ancestors.  We would never descend to a place where we were willing to do as these ancient (and the unspoken word here is: foolish) peoples have done for so many countless spans of time before we lived.  We are a different and a higher breed.

Or are we?

The trend of academics and some social elites seems to be accepting the idea that we are a people totally free in the metaphysical sense.  We are beholden to none, the helmsmen of our own voyage.  Yet when we consider more deeply the practices of ancient man, the lines between “us” and “them” begin to blur.

Man is a creature of metaphors.  When we raise a flag of particular colors high and proud, we know that we are venerating the country it represents and not the cloth that we have stitched together with our own hands.  The cloth is nothing but a symbol, and when we place our hands over our hearts and speak words of allegiance to the flag, we speak not to the flag but to something greater, behind it all.  Ancient man was no different.  He also was a creature of metaphors, and he had his blazons and tribal banners as well, but he also had idols.  The difference between an emblem and an idol is clear- an emblem is respected while an idol is worshiped   The idols may have been made of stone and clay and precious metals, but the men who made them thought of them as more than that.

Ancient man worshiped idols they called Demeter, Ceres, Sif, and others who were to be the gods and goddesses of grain and plentiful harvest.  This seems rather barbaric and foolish, and frankly it is- but are we so different today?  We are told that we are, yet let us examine further.  The pagan gods I mentioned and countless others are the gods of agriculture, plentiful crops, and livestock.  This seems silly to many of us- we are so far removed from that world!  Yet permit me to put things in other terms: agriculture and grain and livestock were equivalent to wealth.  In an agrarian society, wishing for a bountiful crop was wishing for wealth and business success.  The idols of stone and metal that ancient man bowed down before and prayed to were personifications of material wealth, comfort, success and money, and there were even idols that represented money more directly: Ploutus, Njörðr, and others.

How does modern man look in comparison now?

The ancients worshiped Venus and Cupid, and other cultures worshiped adaptations of the same idols: the gods and goddesses of sex, beauty, and of romantic love.  Are we any different?  What does our popular culture promote if not sex, standards of beauty, and the hope of a prince charming or a princess seduction coming to our rescue?

Modern man has its idols today as well, and we build them with our own hands and then ascribe meaning to them, worshipping them as the ancients did before us.  We are supposed to be above this sort of thing in a post-modern, enlightened society, and yet the gods of atheism receive such adoration.  Man builds an empire in business and he worships it, man acquires an education in medicine and he worships it, man sees a woman and he worships her, man sees the “upper crust” of society and he worships it.  There are many other things that men- even men who do not want anything to do with religion- worship.  And what is it to worship?  Is it not but an extravagant dedication and reverence for any given thing?  Is it not what one chooses to dedicate their life to- even if that dedication is a refusal to dedicate their life to anything of importance and to only seek pleasure and parties? (see: Dionysius) Even if a man chooses to worship himself (as many do, and perhaps all, in some sense) is he not bowing to an idol?

Our criticisms of ancient man, while founded, now seem to carry with them a weight of hypocrisy.  We remember stories of the middle aged businessman, who has chosen his career to the exclusion of all else, working nights and weekends and skipping social events with family and friends just so he can make some standard of success he holds in his mind.  We think of the homeless man who has dedicated his life to liquor, searching for and revering the oblivion that it brings.  We think of the teenage girl obsessed with romance novels and whose every waking thought is of the hope of finding a partner who will carry her on to happiness and fulfillment.  What are these things except worshiping the statues that we have built with our own hands?  How is what we do any different from praying to the idols of old?  Modern man is different than the ancients only in his conceitedness, although I suspect that ancient man may have mistakenly thought they were better than their ancestors as well.  We have believed the doctrines of inevitable progress.  Perhaps the doctrines are true, but I have reasons for doubting them.

My point in all of this is the unoriginal, yet extremely important realization that everyone worships something.  The question is: is what you worship worthy of your devotion?

Boxes of Truth

I once saw a very unique film by the name of Koyaanisqatsi.  This film had no actors, no dialogue, no narration, no plot, and really only a few sparse themes.  The music was minimalist and the entire 87 minute feature ran as a series of montages relating to life on planet earth- mostly by showing rivers and landscapes and occasionally cities.  It was very odd.

The point of the whole thing, however, was to demonstrate in a very unconventional way that life is out of balance on the planet earth.  (The word “Koyaanisqatsi” itself is a Hopi word that means “life out of balance”).  I’m not here to do a film review or to tell you to run out and watch something- frankly I didn’t enjoy very much of the experience- but I find the theme of the film to be an interesting one.  Is life out of balance?

I think we all know that it is.

Life is out of balance in many ways, but what I wish to discuss for now is one of the main depictions in the strange film I’ve mentioned.  Koyaanisqatsi spends a good portion of its allotted time showing cities and escalators and streets where people bustle like insects- all to the tune of very repetitive, manic music that does a good job of reinforcing the theme, but is very unpleasant to endure.   I find these depictions of man always in a hurry, always rushing about in their cars and on their phones and whatnot, very telling about where we are today and how we are out of balance in at least one sense.

Bear with me.  I mean not to say that people are too busy, or that they never rest (though perhaps in some cases that may be the truth) I see rather that people are very focused on the material.  People hurry by one another in order to get to their jobs to accomplish their work to bring home their money to purchase their technology- none of which is bad in itself.  However, is it possible that we spend all of our attention and time on that which is measurable and immediately accessible?

We live in an age where we consider ourselves “enlightened”.  And what has enlightened us?  Science, of course.  The scientific revolution changed how we live in many ways, good ways, even, but it also bled into other things, changing how we look at the world.  The scientific method is brilliant and it has helped us achieve numerous advances in medicine, technology, agriculture, and in other areas as well.  We have been presented with a wonderful gift box that reads “scientific truth” on the outside and we as a wide-eyed, eager child have opened it, spilling the golden contents out of the top of the box.  We have been blinded in this display of light and color.  “Scientific truth” is a large box and deep, but there are other, older boxes that now lie mostly neglected in the corner.  We search the depths of the “scientific truth” box, as well we should, but deeper boxes remain unprobed by modern man.

The other boxes can be called by many different names, but for now let us simply refer to them as “philosophy” and “poetry”.

You may dispute my little parable.  “Do we not have philosophy?” You may cry.  I agree that it exists in some small sense, but not much in so far as daily life is concerned, and further more it is entirely dependent upon scientific truth, making it derivative, rather than a distinct entity.  What is our culture’s philosophy?  We do not often talk about it.  We have some vague notions of happiness and decency, but really only because these things make us feel good and science tells us that they may increase our lifespans.  It is difficult for me to nail anything down as our philosophy because it is an area that is simply not discussed.  We believe man to be progressing, though he be an accident, according to our science.  We believe that people should be treated fairly, but we never really bother to explain why, which is, of course, the central question of philosophy.

You see- science asks “how?”, which is good.  Yet knowing how I built a machine does not tell you why I built it.  Science aims at truth- at least at its best it does.  We as a culture seem to believe that scientists are somehow more than common men and are therefore above bias, error, and superstition.  I wish it were so.  Science aims at truth, but it cannot possibly reveal the whole of truth- for science by definition is concerned with that which is observable, quantifiable, and repeatable.  Not everything falls into these categories.  So what do we do?  One of two things, according to the trends of this day and age: we either overextend science into areas where it cannot possibly tell us anything useful, or we deny that anything exists outside of its realm at all, devolving into a materialist perspective that is at least as old as the ancient Greeks (so much for a new enlightenment).

There are things that exist that are not observable or not measurable or not repeatable.  Philosophy and poetry are even deeper boxes than “scientific truth” I believe, but we look into them not often.  Science aims at the body of truth, philosophy at the soul of truth, and poetry at the spirit of truth.  If one desires to have a better picture of the whole, it behooves him to seek truth in more than just one of these boxes.  A mistake that is often made by those who realize their worldviews lack something is that they simply pick a convenient perspective from philosophy that lines up with what they are already doing.  This is as fallacious as the Nazi scientists (Godwin’s law, I know) who had already decided that certain races of people were inferior to their own and they then performed experiments to “prove” this.  Starting with what you want to see is no way to search for the truth.

Science asks “how?”, philosophy asks “why?”, and poetry just listens- or perhaps if we must give its questions a form it would be “what?”.  Philosophy is rare in our society- our culture doesn’t even really believe in love any more, simply because we cannot measure it or put it in a lab.  Some will claim to believe in it, but when the butterflies in their stomach go away they claim that it has died and they get a divorce because it’s convenient.  That’s not believing in love- that’s believing that anything outside of the realm of scientific truth doesn’t exist.  If the brain stops producing chemicals that make me feel in love, it must not be real anymore.  Couples who have endured together for a lifetime in love will tell you differently.

My aim in all of this is to simply say that we limit ourselves, claiming to have it all.  Philosophy is rare in our culture and poetry is almost dead.  Let us remember the slower things and think critically about what is all around us.  There is more to life than “how?”