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Fight Club, Mr. Robot, and why Trump is a thing November 2, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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I just watched Fight Club for the first time in many years. I forgot so much. I forgot how much I liked that movie. I forgot how much it had to say to a pre-9/11 world about the struggle between rich and poor, the anger underneath much of our culture, and the distrust of the economic elite and the distaste fir the materialistic culture of the bourgeois.

It’s right up my alley; over-the-top symbolism, cultural criticism, and still relevant. Watching some of Mr. Robot (which is clearly derivative, but also awesome), it is clear that the questions asked in this movie, also of course the book, are still pulsing through our culture.  Culture, after all, is the very heart of the worldview in which we live.

And as I was watching it, it occurred to me that this was a prediction of a Trump America.

And then I realized that I was seeing patterns where there might not be any, while feeling the pull of a deep fear compelling me to believe it.

And then I realized that was the perfect metaphor for a Trump America, and my love of all things ‘meta’ caused me to laugh at it all.

Because it’s all so terrifyingly real, and I had to laugh in order to not cry.

 

To be honest, I’m not sure what to say about it all.

Am I supposed to sympathize with the deep fear, anger, and passion of a Trumpish America? It’s close enough to my familial, economic, and geographical (in terms of the part of Philadelphia I grew up in) background to be comprehensible to me, for sure. I can understand it.

When the world is fundamentally broken, what does it matter if the ship sinks? Who cares if he’s a narcissistic bully who will throw our country into disrepute. Aren’t we already there, in some regards? Does it matter to us?

If the system is broken, and refuses to maintain the comfortable priviliege I’ve gotten used to, why try to save it?

 

What do you mean it’s not broken? What do you mean it is salvageable? What do you mean Hillary isn’t crooked? I mean, she has to be to get along within it. The only way to survive in that system is to play dirty.

 

So, why not cut out the middle man? Instead of a corrupt politician taking money from the interested elite, why not just elect the elite? At least he’s not lying to us (although he actually is). Why not just have the economic elite control it directly, and let it all fall down?  Why not hasten its fall? Why pretend to put in a shill, and just unmask the Wizard behind the curtain?

Why not stand naked to the world, so everyone can see what we are?

Trump is America.

He’s our Tyler Durden.

 

And perhaps now it’s time to wake up and realize that it was us, the whole time creating this monster, before it’s too late. Perhaps the steady, non-ideal status quo is the only choice right now. when faced with our racist, misogynistic, bully of the America we have been ignoring for far too long.

And with Stein being a terrible choice, anyway, and Gary Johnson being a Libertarian, PolySkeptic.com has no choice but to endorse Hillary Clinton this year.

Let’s hope that future choices are more ideal.

 

Trying it July 18, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory.
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My partner just recently went through a breakup with a guy she’d been seeing recently. He was new to polyamory, and from what I could tell, he was not handling the newfound relationship territory well. At some point towards the end of the relationship, he requested that she try monogamy for him, since he was willing to try polyamory for her.

You know, in order be fair. Since he tried a new relationship configuration for her, she should try something similar for him.  50/50 compromise, right?

Nope. That’s not how that works.

OK, so I think I understand what’s going on here, in his head. It seems like there is some serious blindness occurring here, which I’m not especially surprised about but which I am somewhat fascinated with nonetheless. The assumption seems to be that he is putting a significant effort into trying to understand polyamory (whether he actually was doing so is another question. She seems to think not), and is not finding that it is what he wants so in order for the relationship to have the equal give and take on both sides, he’s requesting that his partner, who is also my partner, try being monogamous with him.

It’s only fair, right?

I mean, it would mean that she’d have to break up with me to do so. But that’s hardly the important point here. The important point is that in our culture, a person who is polyamorous is almost certainly extremely aware of what monogamy is, how it works, and does not need to “try it” to understand how it is likely to go. The important point is that he either does not understand that we, polyamorously-inclined people, already know what being monogamous entails and how it’s likely to work for us, or he does understand and he is trying to guide his fear, jealousy, etc into a comfortable box within which he can assert control.

In fact, it’s somewhat analogous to when a Christian evangelical tries to introduce non-believers to Jesus, as if we don’t know it, already. They seem either completely unaware that we understand their message and their worldview, or they are so afraid of their own uncertainties about said story that they want to pull others into their little box in an attempt to placate their fear with vindication through company.

Poly people, especially those of us who think and write about it, are aware of monogamy in a way that monogamous people, in many cases, are not. We see it from multiple perspectives, because we are faced with the various facets, assumptions, and problems of the traditionally monogamous world. We don’t need to try it because not only, in many cases, did we come from the monogamous world, but we also tend to have a greater understanding of relationship dynamics in general.

[I’ll add, here, that this is not an argument that we are smarter, more wise, or right, just that we have a perspective which grants us the potential for greater vision of the relationship/sexuality landscape]

So, no. We don’t need to try monogamy for those partners struggling with the shift to polyamory. We certainly can if we choose to, but such a request comes across as more of an attempt to manipulate and control than to lead towards a more healthy and satisfying relationship.

And, to my relief, she said no.

Which is great, because I love her and I wouldn’t want her to leave me for some monogamous bloke, unless it was what she actually wanted.

 

A poem? Meh, whatever…. April 1, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, Religion.
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[cn: sarcasm, wordplay, someone will hate this, and I suppose I’m ok with that. Wait, what’s the syntax of this content note? Is this thing unix? Can I use python? Isn’t all language merely metaphor and lies? Definitely the wrong syntax]

Is the irony of theater that to do it well one need not act?

Occasionally, one stops acting.

Stop acting, please.

All of us
So say we all?

Well (and let me not be impertinent) that would be a nice start, I suppose.

But I gave up hope for that many years ago, because I don’t think being the Borg is really the right historical influence.

Isn’t that weird?

The Borg, for this type of nerd, has a similar influence that “real” history has, because they are both just narratives echoing off the walls. Is that a sociological question, psychological feeling, or philosophical grant money. Wait, I meant field of study. Hmm, why didn’t I want to get a PhD again?

Scilon cylon, Borg, whatever. That was a little heavy with the word play. I’m amused, I apologize if you think I’m being serious.

Also, if I did offend you, then I’m sorry I hurt you, so I invite all comments and will consider them seriously, all of them. OK, when it’s obvious trolling, I’m peace out, but otherwise. Is this more of a rap or a poem? wait, what’s the difference again? Which one has the holodeck? I’m confused, sorry. I was too busy rocking out to Ziggy Stardust, because someone I once loved very much made it important to me once, but I still love it on its own.

Sorry, rambling again. It’s fun watching the show everywhere. The world is a stage, and all that whatnot. Forsooth!

Signed, your friendly neighborhood dudebro.

P.S.   Wait, that wasn’t right. local neighborhood weirdo who writes in the local bar, because he likes to be around people. Dude, syntax again. srsly.

Nevermind, I’ll stop being absurdist. It’s partially escapism, but it’s mostly actually just letting go, unlocking the gates of Hades, metaphorically. Always liked that metaphor. Old one. Still rocks.

Word.

Sacred beliefs; being wrong March 29, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, relationships.
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If you were to look at older posts on this blog, you would see me being critical of how defensive religious people are about their beliefs. In the earlier days of the atheist community, there was a divide between those who were openly critical of people’s faiths and those who wanted to build bridges or who simply didn’t see the point in criticizing or challenging personal beliefs.

Now, after some years, the rifts, arguments, and points of contention have changed, but it strikes me that the same fundamental question is still at hand; what do we do with people’s sacred beliefs?

Of course, this is not a question unique to the atheist community. I’d bet it’s pretty universal across cultures, societies, etc.

So, what about people we don’t like? What about people who have hurt us? What about people we refuse to talk with? I am not very certain of this framing, and I am writing this more with an interest to structure my thoughts than to try and compel a specific argument, but allow me to posit an idea.

As a background for this, allow me to summarize my views on how we rationalize, which I have written about before.

Rationalization:

Not all of our conclusions are truly rationally derived. In fact, I would say that probably a good number of them are not. Through some unseen bias, trauma, idealism, or even dedication to a person or group (groupthink, tribalism, or even loyalty to a loved one), we come to a conclusion that is more based upon emotion than pure rational thinking (a kind of Critique of Pure Reason, as it were), and we then rationalize that emotional decision.

We all do this, a lot. In fact, I notice that it’s much more prevalent the more rational a person thinks they are; it’s often the most logically-minded people who are susceptible to this. (Yes, myself included).

And then we, the rational paragons that we are, defend our emotional conclusions. And we become defensive around the subject of that conclusion. And then those who differ with us become the other, from another tribe, and then we cannot even hear, understand, or possibly even be around those people. We read them unfairly, we credit them with motives which they might not have, and we are unable, and usually unwilling, to hear them.

Friendships, romantic relationships, business partnerships, and all other sorts of human relations are lost through such means, and it often takes years, if it happens at all, to be able to see past the biases which we build when this happens. This is how enemies and estrangements are made, and it’s utterly ridiculous most of the time.

 

Sacred Space

You’ve been hurt. Someone made a decision which had an unwanted result, from your point of view. Maybe you were friends for years, maybe you have only known them for a few months, or maybe they are a family member. Now, aside from the rare person who is actually malicious (and hell, we can almost never be sure that our “enemy” is ever really that person, because it usually feels that way to the harmed), most people who hurt us were not trying to. Their reasons for what they did are probably complicated, they probably regret their actions (at least to some degree), and they are probably not the person that your angry, hurt, and resentful self sees.

And yet I am willing to bet that in the long run that demonized version of them will be the one which you (and your friends who console you) will remember. Because memory is associated with emotion. No matter how good things were, you remember them through the association of that pain.

And so you create a sacred space of belief about that person, what they did, and any contradiction of that narrative are dismissed, like we do with all our beliefs; they survive on the nectar or bias and demonization. I’ve done this, myself. In the period of healing over the least couple of years, I’ve done it to several people. In recent months, I’ve started to doubt my beliefs, with regard to some of these people, and I have begun to question whether the conclusions I reached were true.

In one case, I realized that a specific person who was vilified among the people closest to me was not, in fact, vile at all. I realized that she was someone who was suffering, who made mistakes, and who I loved very much. The details don’t matter here, but suffice it to say that this realization cost me dearly, because I handled it badly.

But the only reason i realized it was because I was able to question the tribalistic groupthink which was forming around this person. I was able, eventually, to see around the biases which others were trying to compel me to accept. And I made the decision which I needed to make, but in the wrong way.

I have always been a person who has been willing to question the most sacred of my personal beliefs. One could frame this as lack of confidence in myself (and that is also partially true), but I believe that it is also a virtue to not be able to look at my personal beliefs as sacred objects not to be questioned. The traditions, childhood dreams, and ideals we carry sometimes blind us to the possibility of transcendent growth. Sometimes ideals are more a hindrance than a boon to personal enlightenment; beware the person of strong conviction, for that conviction is the lens through which they see the world.

 

Being wrong

The result of all this pondering is that I wonder if maybe I have been very wrong about some things. Many things, perhaps.

I have read what some have said about me, and know what others think of me, but despite my flaws (and I certainly have them), I am not the person I see reflected in their thoughts. And if I do not give my view of  others the same revision which I give to my own beliefs, it would be irrational to expect them to do the same. I cannot expect others to see past their biases if I will not see past my own. I have to be willing to be wrong, about everything.

Too many people out there in the various communities in which I have walked are unwilling to hear what some other people have to say, and really hear it. Too much enmity (some of it is actually deserved, but not all of it), too little willingness to reconsider, and too much desire to be right than to be willing to listen. Too much conviction. Too much comfort and certainty about one’s own values and goals, for my taste. Those things are as likely to be cages as virtues.

I’ve lost people I have cared about because I’ve made mistakes, because others have made mistakes, and because (usually) we both made mistakes. We’re human. But an unwillingness to listen, to hear, to drop down the walls between us all is not helping anyone. We all had reasons for the decisions we made, and if we might be willing to look past our feelings a  little bit, perhaps we could see why we might have made the same decision as they did, and perhaps begin to forgive.

Or, you know, we could all just move along feeling self-righteous and  comfortable in whatever tribe we’ve formed. That could be fun too, right?

I’ve been wrong, you’ve been wrong, and we will all be wrong more than we’d like to be. Don’t let the potential for understanding, enlightenment, or intimacy be lost for the sake of your stupid sacred beliefs and conclusions. That’s completely silly.

 

 

The Republic of The Self January 29, 2016

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal.
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tripartite

Plato’s tripartite soul/state

One of the first philosophy books I ever read, when I was around 14 or so, was Plato’s Republic. It’s a very well-known and influential book, both in the philosophical world but also in Western culture in general. The basic theme of the book is that there is a discussion, including Socrates and his interlocutors, about the nature of the human “soul”, by use of an analogy of creating a perfect “Republic.”

The concept of the “tripartite soul” was derived, in part, from this book (also the Phaedo). Plato saw us as being made up of logical, spiritual, and desirous parts, all having to work together in a hierarchical fashion in order to achieve harmony and happiness. Analogously, the state, in this case an ideal republic, should be made up of the “philosopher kings” (reason/logic), the soldiers (will/spirit), and the citizens (appetite/desire).

Plato’s psychological theory is, of course, unscientific and not used by psychology (and his political one as well, given his inability to build a successful state himself) but nonetheless this idea is embedded in much of Western thinking (for good or ill, probably more the latter). How often do we think of ourselves as having to use reason or logic to reign in our will or desires? Don’t we still see, in some ways, our leaders as a means to control our ability to make war or to give us motivation to work and not to simply eat, drink, and have sex all day?

I’ll leave that for the anarchists out there to discuss.

 

Revolution v. Incremental change

“God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” (Thomas Jefferson)

(source)

Thomas Jefferson, despite his flaws, has been an inspiration to me in my life. I have a cloth-bound copy of his writings which I found in a little used books store in DC many years ago, and I read a bit from it now and then.

Bernie Sanders

Sen. Bernie Sanders

In a conversation I paid attention to among some Facebook friends yesterday about the upcoming presidential primaries (specifically concerning the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who I am supporting), a comment exposed some skepticism as to whether Sanders’ political revolution is possible or even likely. The sentiment was that political change occurs slowly, incrementally. The idea is that the “Hope and change” we progressives wanted with Obama only partially happened, but that we want more. Some people think that’s not going to happen, and we need to be patient and work within the system for change to happen slowly.

That actual revolutions are rare, usually bloody, and don’t happen in the way that Sanders’ supporters would like.

And if we look back on history, we don’t see too many successful purely political revolutions. Perhaps the recent election in Canada are an exception (I have not been following Trudeau’s moves, but I’m glad that Canada has moved in a more liberal direction), and perhaps Sanders winning the presidency would be similar in scope. However, would such a feat equal a political “revolution”? Or would it merely lead to more congressional inaction due to Sanders being unable to bring more liberal congressmen to office to help motivate the change? Would Congress be as gridlocked as it has been in the last 7 years?

Would it really change anything quickly enough to warrant calling it a “revolution”?

I don’t know.

But shouldn’t we be trying, anyway?

That’s a good question.

 

I, Plato

So, taking a queue from Plato, I was thinking about how political mechanization can be analogous to ourselves. If I were to think of myself as an analogy for a nation, although not a tripartite one (because the relationship between reason, emotion, and desire are not actually hierarchical at all, nor are they separate modules in any clean sense), is it possible for a person to have a true revolutionary change in behavior, outlook, and disposition? Sure, we can change, but can we do it overnight, over a few days, or even weeks?

Lord knows I have tried, over the years. But have I succeeded?

No, I don’t think I have. And I am unsure whether I even can. So, is it true that true change can only be incremental?

After all, some people claim to have been born again, right?

I’ve had certain moments where I felt like I had changed. But, upon further reflection, this was really a matter of emotion and mood. A few days later, a few weeks later, I was back to the same song and dance, but with more experience. That experience is key; something from that mood stuck with me, and little by little those moments of clarity, the feeling of something having changed, accumulated into slow, actual long-term change.

And what I’m concluding about this is that while the cumulative change will not happen overnight, we need the temporary, passionate, and radical thrusts towards a better nation and person in order to keep us pushing forward. Whether it is politics or person, we need the revolutionary energy to keep pushing the conversation and the insight into ourselves to keep moving in a direction we want to move.

The United States may never becomes a liberal, Democratically Socialist country like I’d like it to be, but we need people like Bernie Sanders shifting our attention in that direction, even if they cannot implement that change as a candidate or a president. Similarly, I may never be the man I wish to be, but if I don’t allow myself to feel the passion of being that moment today, and from time to time, I will settle into a comfort zone of who I am, rather than keep pushing on.

And I need my temperamental desires, my reason, and my will to work in collaboration in order to get there. I will not make my will, desire, nor my reason to submit to any of the others, but I will let each do what they do best, and allow the process to bring forth growth.

Am I a different person than I was 1, 2 or 5 years ago? Yes. But that changed happened with incremental change fueled by periodic revolutionary moments of trauma, my own mistakes, and intellectual insight. Those revolutionary moments supplied the ideological horizon I should be moving towards it, but often gave the illusion of already having reached it.

Electing Bernie Sanders will not complete the revolution, but it might be a step in the right direction. Making a wise decision about what I will do in my life won’t make me my ideal self, but it’s also a step in the right direction.

Be patient, but don’t allow patience to prevent you from pursuing passionately from time to time. Because otherwise our patience turns into complacency and comfort. When we stop trying for revolutions, be become part of the establishment; we become the conservatives of tomorrow.

 

 

Tonight at 11: Bullshit defines reality December 2, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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I’ve seen this story floating around, recently:

Why People Think Total Nonsense is Really Deep

Money shot from the study:

Those more receptive to bull**** are less reflective, lower in cognitive ability (i.e., verbal and fluid intelligence, numeracy), are more prone to ontological confusions [beliefs in things for which there is no empirical evidence (i.e. that prayers have the ability to heal)] and conspiratorial ideation, are more likely to hold religious and paranormal beliefs, and are more likely to endorse complementary and alternative medicine.

I’m looking at you, Deepak Chopra (who is named in the journal article several time).

onbullshitWhat is “bullshit”? The article starts by referencing a small book(which i own), called On Bullshit, written by philosopher Harry Frankfurt.

It’s a short little book (it’s actually quite physically small, and it resides on my bookshelf atop my study Bible, because I follow directions well, and store it on bullshit.

My mind is strange.

In any case, the article quotes the book is defining “bullshit” as being “something that is designed to impress but that was constructed absent direct concern for the truth.” Not a lie, per se, but without making the effort to be supported by good thinking or skepticism, let’s say.

The article elaborates:

Thus, bullshit, in contrast to mere nonsense, is something that implies but does not contain adequate meaning or truth. This sort of phenomenon is similar to what Buekens and Boudry (2015) referred to as obscurantism (p. 1): “[when] the speaker… [sets] up a game of verbal smoke and mirrors to suggest depth and insight where none exists.”

So, it’s like many conservative talking points, theology (I repeat myself!), or much of postmodernist philosophy. It is words that have syntactic structure which conform to normal communication, but one cannot fathom a meaning except, in the best cases, in some vaguely poetic manner.

And poetry (I’ve been reading Tennyson recently) does often occupy a universe where the limits of normal expression get stretched, but bullshit seems to be the point where it breaks. Charting the difference between these two is difficult, for sure. I’m sure some fans of Deepak Chopra would retort that those of us critical of his “bullshit” are failing to see the meaning due to a lack of imagination or something, but I do think there is a line where poetic expression leads nowhere, and that “nowhere” is precisely Bullshitland.

That is, there is a point where the art of language skews into an expression which cannot be mapped to reality. And yet…

And yet there is this:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
      Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
      And the mome raths outgrabe.

 

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
      The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
      The frumious Bandersnatch!”
This is the first two stanzas of the famous poem, “Jabberwocky.” It exists within a similar universe as bullshit, except is swaps actual words in syntactic formation without any coherent meaning for (to some extent) coherent meaning with words which almost seem real, but are not.
That is, where bullshit seeks to pull us towards the realm of meaninglessness and obscurantism while using real words, Jabberwocky somehow pulls us towards a semblance of meaning while not even using real words. This, more than anything else, unearths the true absurdity of bullshit; it’s deception lies in its ability to use the parts of the real world to try to construct impossible shapes.
And yet…
escher-relativity

 

This is one of MC Escher’s many drawings. It exists in 2 dimensions, and hints at a 3 dimensional world which cannot exist…at least not in the way that it’s depicted. It is using the expected tools of drawing, which is usually a representation of the real world in 2 dimensional form, and breaks the form so that it is, in a sense, bullshit.

But we can glean some kind meaning from it. This meaning, a commentary upon perception, dimension, and form, is one that transcends the media. It supervenes and emerges from it, a true emergent property, and teaches us something about our perception and meaning.

Bullshit does something similar. It defines, for us, the shape, limits, and boundaries of meaning. It is a cautionary tale of how to keep within the bounds of what language and reality can do together, and what they cannot do together.

herebedragonsIt says to us, in a sense, “beyond here are dragons.” It defines the limits of reality, as we can express it in words, and when we verge nearer to it’s boundaries, with poetry, art, postmodern deconstruction of meaning and perception, we start to better define what is real and what is not real.

In a sense, it is true irony. Bullshit is what defines the edges of reality. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that there is anything beyond that boundary.

It’s sort of like how death defines life, but there is nothing beyond it. Believing that the bullshit contains anything meaningful is, conceptually, similar to believing in an afterlife.

There isn’t an afterlife. So eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.

 

Waits, measures, and standards April 22, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
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ProtagorasWho are we to judge? Well, without us (or some other sentient species) the concept would be meaningless, right? Humanity is the source of all meaning (being that there are no gods and the universe is not conscious), and thus the only source for any judgment, criticism, or any analysis at all about anything, right?

So what of Protagoras’ statement on the right? Are we, as people, the measure of all things? Perhaps. But allow me to draw out two possible interpretive directions which we could go with this to tease out a potential problem here.

On one hand, this could be interpreted to mean that human individuals are the arbiter of measurement. On the other hand, we could take this to mean that the collective set of humanity is the scale of this measurement. This, of course, brings about all sorts of potential problems, because the first leads to a kind of solipsism or egoism in terms of our making sense of things, and the other opens up the many problems involved in communication, understanding, and all the related sociological and cultural issues related to agreement and disagreement.

And from either, chaos only can ensue.

Individual power and Groupthink

In some sense, I create my own meaning and value.* But I only can do so for my own life. If I were to try and spread this meaning any further, at best I could only make connections with people of similar perspectives (whether due to physiological similarity, common experiences, or some combination of both) or manipulate or control people (who have less strong senses of self worth, perhaps) towards opinions and behaviors which are in my own interest. The first is simply accident, the second is potentially abusive and toxic.

Strong, intelligent, and/or charismatic personalities have been finding those connections and leading people towards their values for as long as humans have been able to communicate concepts, very likely. The results of this type of human interaction over the millennia are every aspect of culture which we see; concepts, languages, religions, tribes, families, cults, etc. But there are many such people, with varying degrees of ability, intellect, and desire to control. Most of them will have little to no actual control.

And do not get me wrong, I’m not describing evil, sociopathic, power-hungry people solely. In fact, there are many people who have done many helpful and non-harmful things with their ability to control. This ability, itself, is neutral. It is merely a power set which has one type of effect on groups. We must distinguish between the ability to control and inspire people and the message being disseminated. Of course, certain types of messages will spread easier than others, and whether all of those viral ideas are bad or good are well beyond my ability to judge with any authority; I simply don’t have the data to support any hypothesis on the matter.

The bottom line here is that if I were to attempt to impose my own values onto the greater world, at best I could lead or join a group of people with similar ideas. At worst I could find people who would be willing to obediently submit to my ideas for reasons related to lack of self-worth, co-dependency, or simple apathy. In most cases, people end up in some space between those two, and the larger sociological and cultural effect is groups of people who stick with their own. In-group and out-group effects take shape, and the next thing you know is you have would-be autocrats and groups thinking similarly.

And not all of them will get along. It’s pretty universal, sociologically speaking.

Standards

So, what are the standards? Are they those of my heroes? My tribe? Are they mine? Are they the standards of my group? Probably one of those. But are they my standards because they are right, or are they right because they are my standards? And how much does the tribalistic and Groupthinky tendencies of all of us affect what standards I’ll think of as right? After all, I likely either chose my group because of our similar values, had my values shaped by someone else who was able to influence me, or influenced others towards my values to create a group of like-minded individuals.

At some point in the past, I would have written some nice-sounding composition about how the scientific method, logic, and critical thinking would step in here to be the arbiter.  And, to some extent I believe this still; whatever method eliminates, best, personal bias and errors is extremely useful in determining what the truth is. But this is a naive and, I believe, short-sighted solution to the problem. It sounds nice, it’s technically true, but the simple fact is that it does not actually cut through all the noise.

It’s impotent against our tendencies to get stuck within our webs, whether those webs are of our own making, our hero’s making, or if we worked together on it as relative equals.

Patience

So, perhaps I should not be talking about patience. I, as those close to me know, struggle with patience. It is, in many ways, the point at which I am weakest. But, perhaps because of this, I have a somewhat privileged perspective over how powerful patience is. I see people who are, by nature, patient and I see how powerful it is. I also see how it’s lack (usually upon later reflection) can be a detriment.

OK, so what does that have to do with finding meaning, measuring the truth, or how to behave?

To be honest, I am not exactly sure yet. But that has been a thing I think about, recently.   And I am not sure if I’ll ever figure it out, precisely. I have some thoughts which are partially formed, immature, and growing, but I do not want to spell that out yet. To do so would be to impatient. I need to allow myself to settle back, let the thoughts mature, and keep watching, listening, and when I better understand maybe I’ll come back to this.

For now, I don’t have a lot of answers. I have a lot of questions, uncertainties, and (certainly) insecurities. I have a lot og unknowns. They are becoming less terrifying to me, recently. They are still scary (and perhaps they always will be), but perhaps they will no longer compel impatient fearful reactions.

But, in the end, these are my values, my meanings, and my struggles. I can only hope that some of you recognize what I;m talking about and maybe you can identify with me in that sense. And if this leaves you cold or confused, then this is not for you.

So, what about Protagoras’ saying? Are we humans the measure of all things? Well, trivially yes. But right now I doubt that it’s any one of us, any group of us, or even any one philosophical system which is the scale upon which to make such measurements. That measurement, I think, comes more from those small, subtle moments of uncertainty and questions which are the connective tissue of growth and maturity.

My recommendation is to be wary of not only absolutes and certainties, but also over-confidence. Those who appear certain may not, in fact, have anything to offer you except their own certainty.

*That is, the extent to which we actually can choose our meaning and value is somewhat dependent upon whether our will is in any meaningful way free. In either case, the creation of this meaning happens within me, so free or not is is of my creation.

Happy Darwin Day! February 12, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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birthdaydarwinBy pure accident, I published my first blog post on Darwin day back in 2009; 6 years ago today. So, for readers who may not know much about Charles Darwin or Darwin Day, Let me point you to some resources.

First, let’s start with the website dedicated to Darwin Day itself, DarwinDay.org. Here, you can find all sorts of things, such as local events, including this, happening in Philadelphia tonight at National Mechanics–which I may decide to pop into (if I have time after the laundry that really needs to get done). There are also educationalactivism, and news resources there, so take a look.

There’s also a Facebook page for Darwin Day.

darwinQBut there’s also a plethora of excellent resources all over the internet about Charles Darwin.  I will not even try to summarize them all, because they are too extensive. There are, of course, organizations and site dedicated to misinformation, misunderstanding, or outright opposition to Darwin and to the theory of evolution itself (it does pain me to post those links…).

Among my favorite evolution/Darwin specific websites is the Understanding Evolution website hosted at Berkeley. There’s a series of articles about the history of evolution, which includes some details about Darwin which start here. among my least favorites would be places such at Answers in Genesis, whgich is a group dedicated to the Biblical “truth” of creation. Hacks, and idiots, really.

Darwin_Small_mediumLet’s not forget that you can get all sorts of bumper stickers, decals, and other DarwinFish to put on your car, forehead, or computer screens. They are a good way to show the person driving behind you in traffic that you are educated in the scientific method, understand at least some of the complexities of the concepts within evolutionary theory (such as natural selection), and that you will not submit to bronze-age pseudoscience or creations myths.

That, or you really love your fish named “Darwin.”

I will not even begin to try to summarize the influence of Charles Darwin myself, mostly because I’m not an expert but also because there are already so many good resources on this subject. I’ll simply say that reading the Origin of Species was a positive experience, and what I do understand about biology is both fascinating and often beautiful.

darwin-change-201x300If you don’t know much about Charles Darwin or if you just want to know more, take a look at some of the links here. Or, if you just want to celebrate his birthday with some like-minded people over beers, food, or just conversation, check out the events page and find some local people.

Happy birthday Darwin!

I hope you don’t rise from the grave as a zombie to eat all of our brains, because that wouldn’t be very nice. So, let’s not do that.

Humility: The Song and the Notes February 8, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Personal, Religion, Sex and sexuality.
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Nietzsche_tastevanitySo, you know this concept of humility? Yeah, that one is rough sometimes. It seems like some people hear it’s tones as a discordant miasma of chaos, while others hear a well-trained symphony playing something seemingly divine. The truth is that it’s neither of those things, but the nuances of music are such that there is room for argument and taste.

There is the kind of humility which is supposed to be the theme song which follows you around. It’s like a master beat-box artist, or possibly an angel with a harp or even just some dude just wailin’ on that bass (tastes do differ, after all), but not matter what that arrangement is, it’s one of the presences in your life, ideally keeping arrogance, bias, and simple error at bay.

Listen, confidence is great. I’m all for confidence.  And I’m definitely not for deference or prostration to either gods, absolutist ideals (or Platonism in general), or traditions. But there are other sources of servitude than religions and traditions. Our emotions, desires, and cognitive biases will perpetually get in the way of our ability to navigate between the Scylla/Carybdis of our hubris/timidity. Humility, if played to an Aristotelian key, is a song of temperance, and not docility.

for my own reference as much as anyone else's

for my own reference as much as anyone else’s

So, given the tempo of this Aristotelian ballad, floating between Prestissimo and the Grave (perhaps an adagio today and an allegro tomorrow), I think that some sense of perspective of who, where, and how we are requires the ability to be self corrective more or less based upon the circumstances in which we find ourselves. That is, we need to listen to the other players if we want to make music well. Life is not all solos.

But also because sometimes it’s time for quiet reflection, and sometimes it’s time to dance! Sometimes we need to assert ourselves, and sometimes we need to step back and listen. And sometimes we might hear something new in our favorite songs or discover that upon further reflection, we hate this song (Hell, Nietzsche could tell you all about that, amirite?). Sometimes we can find new ways to interact with the world, as our desires and tastes change.

The path behind and the path forward

Our preferences are linked to things like memory, experience, and emotional associations.  These preferences are also intimately related to the ideals and goals which we revere. These ideals are immensely powerful motivators, but they can also be anchors and delusions.

Sometimes these ideals come from an ancient religion, steeped in history and buried into the very language, culture, and psychology of a community. That is where this blog started, as a log of ideas about how religion wove its way into the fabric of love, sex, and commitment in our culture. It was an exploration of the problematic concepts which underlie all of our ability to conceive of who and what we are as people living in a universe without gods, but within a culture drowning in the psychopathic, unconcerned, or impotent ideas of gods.

Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference. Get used to it.

Yes, yet another Nietzsche reference.
Get used to it.

This was a blog about exploring what was possible, if we stop adhering to the sexual, romantic, and relationship norms our society defers to. It was, in a sense, one more hammer to the old gods, ideals, and philosophies to which so many are still adhered.

And over time it changed. I started thinking about polyamory more.  I started having more experiences within polyamory. I had many wonderful and fulfilling experiences, I’ve had experiences which were fun but often challenging, and I’ve experienced the worst interpersonal trauma from people I lent some trust to.

And I’ve changed. Who I am today is not who I was 6 years ago, when this blog started.  And in the last several months, I came to a realization that has had a profound effect on my outlook for the future.  I realized that I was wrong about something very fundamental about myself; something that has been the cause of a very significant problems in my life. And I owe that knowledge to someone who I love dearly and who had to allow me to sink or swim on my own.

I swam.

What is it? Well, that’s not really important, is it? The specific lesson is not the point, at all. Besides, that revelation is personal, and while I would be more than willing to share that understanding (assuming I could properly articulate it) with the people I’m close to in my life (and I’m happy that I have people in my life who honor me with their friendship and love), it’s not necessary here.

Also, there are people who still read this blog (hi there! You can one star my post if you like, but that’s sort of childish, isn’t it?) who would attempt to bend and stretch such information against me if they could (narrative spinning is their specialty, after all). Also, because it can’t really be that interesting to most of the rest of you anyway. You don’t come here to be my proxy therapist. I tend to pay people to do that for me.

The last reason I’ll not explore this personal revelation here leads to another kind of humility which I’d like to talk about. This is the kind that comes out of nowhere and knocks you on your ass. These are the striking and emotionally intense notes in the song of your life, ones which have consequences for how you hear the rest of the song.

It’s the kind of humility (humiliation, perhaps) where you have found that you (perhaps) fucked up, big time, and now it’s time to shut up and start listening. Of course, one does not always shut up and listen, so one might talk themselves into a corner. And then, well, you’re in a corner having to decide what to do next.

And then you have to learn some things. Then you have to reflect one how you fucked up, what you are going to do about it, and even though you might hate doing it….

Now it’s time to walk the hard path.

And then, sometimes, while walking that path, you find that you didn’t know as much as you thought, especially about yourself.

I think there might be a metaphor in there....

I think there might be a metaphor in there….

My lovely girlfriend and I, with whom I’ve just celebrated a year together just this week (but who must remain anonymous, for unfortunate reasons related to social expectations and cultural taboos), went to see the movie Wild, which I liked quite a lot. Obviously, it’s a movie about self-discovery and traveling a difficult road (both literally and metaphorically) towards a goal which may be arbitrary, but which takes on new meaning as you approach it.

The problem is that by focusing on that destination, that ideal, you miss all the details all around you. It’s also not unlike hearing that note or phrasing in a piece of music which keeps dancing around a melody, harmonic, or note. If you do nothing but anticipate that note, that goal, or even that (perhaps) perfection then you are not paying full attention to the path itself. You start to miss the trees because you are looking for the whole forest.

If we, as listeners and as path-travelers, learn to pay more attention to the moment then we will notice that it changes our journey from progress to process. In other words, we become less-ends-oriented and we become more aware of the experience of journeying. Knowing precisely where you are is a humbling experience, sometimes. Whether we think of this humility in the cosmic sense of size or in the existential sense identity, it amounts to a humility which should offer us some pause.

And we should accept that offer, from time to time.

Eventually that destination, which was so dramatic and distracting to start, dissolves either into the horizon and becomes your theme song or it starts to fade into background noise, ultimately to be unnoticed or forgotten. And then all there is the path. And when you are bored on this path you start to see things differently. When it’s quiet, when you are alone without distraction, you have the opportunity to listen to yourself a little closer, and you will almost certainly learn something.

Since we're on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.

Since we’re on a Cheryl Strayed kick today.

Well, I’ve learned some things recently. And I think that I am feeling better than I have in a long time, at least in terms of being optimistic about my personal future. The dawn has broken, the storm clouds are retreating, and what I thought was going to be my end may end up being my greatest beginning.

I’m not saying that it will be easy, because it will not be.  I will not say that I do not fear it, because I do. But where it will be hard I will work harder, and where it will be terrifying I will allow myself to slow down, look at the path, consider the destination I may create for myself at that moment. As a practical result, I will no longer retreat from the world as I have been in recent months.

Now, the biggest challenge I have is to have the patience to wait for Spring, because this cold weather is not pleasant for me, at all. Is it May yet?

Bottom line? Well, I was wrong about some things concerning myself. But as a result I was able to discover that maybe I have an opportunity for something better, now. My advice is to be willing to listen, be wrong, and to imagine that perhaps the reason you find yourself where you are has more to do about what you are wrong about than anything else. Or, alternatively, you may find that you were more right than you knew, only you didn’t believe in yourself enough.

Not arrogance and not servility, but instead a humble sense of perspective towards finding a way to balance your individual strengths with an ability to weave those strengths into a larger whole. There will be times for solos, soap-boxes, and individual efforts, but working harmoniously and in symphony is often much harder and more rewarding.

I wish for beautiful music along all of your paths.

Objective Judgment? February 2, 2015

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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Wait, which way is north on this thing?

Wait, which way is north on this thing?

I’ve been thinking a lot, recently, about objectivity. Or, as some call it, “truth.”

(oh crap, he’s about to get philosophical….)

Oh, shaddap, you!

Anyway, back to what I was saying. I like believing things. It’s often nice if they happen to be true. It happens once in a while. Or, you know, at least once. It might have happened.

There is a part of my mind which just insists that there must be true things, out there, which are true regardless of whether anyone effectively simulates those ideas in their heads or not.  I recognize this as my ego desiring that my view of the world is true, and this feeling is much stronger the more emotional I am. And then, well, I analyze that statement and I realize the whole thing collapses on its own weight.

Ker-plunk!

I hate that. Disillusionment is a serious harsh to my mellow. Yes, I just used that phrase, which means it’s now 1995. You’re welcome.

Truth has never been more adorable. Or sleepy.

Truth has never been more adorable. Or sleepy.

Minds are, by definition, subjective. There is no objective point of view (this was one of the central axioms of my MA thesis, which I will not try to summarize here because I like you, dear reader, and I want you to keep reading). All we can do is come together and try to construct reality out of the bloody remains of our experience which survives all that bias and interpretation. Our personal experience, in other words, is like a hot dog is to reality’s cow. Don’t think about that analogy too much, because you will die from an aneurysm.

So if that is the case, then how can we talk about anything being “true”?

There is an idea within the skeptic community, which has been articulated in a few ways. The basic idea is that the “truth” is what remains after we remove all (or, at least, as much as possible) personal bias. It is the thing that continues to exist whether we believe in it or not. It is “reality.” It does not care what we think, it just is. And the best way to apprehend such a thing would be by use of the tools of philosophy and science; logic and empiricism.

And I agree with this idea. But how could I? Why not just give over to the anti-realists? (cf this analysis and this article at the SEP). Why not go even further and become a mystic or neo-vedantic philosophies which reject the concept of reality all-together? Why not just admit that all of this “reality” is merely an illusion–maya-and forgo this western concept of progress, understanding, and materialism? Why not just admit that everything is mere opinion, and that what “really happens” is a nonsensical idea?

Why not just give people flowers at the airport and change my name to Sunbeam…again?

Stubbornness, I suppose. Also, pragmatism, to some degree. Mostly, it’s Nietzsche. Nietzsche is the Goa’uld for whom I am but a host, apparently.

Science fiction and dead Germans aside, this is a tension that sits on the edge of my mind frequently, and one which is sometimes glossed over in conversations about scientific realism and hippies. But that specific argument is not the focus of my attention today. Today, I’m concerned with how we form opinions about ourselves, other people, and circumstances which I believe has some epistemological commonalities with this philosophical question of whether the world is real.

Is my worldview actually based in reality?

If I believe that I am a good person, or that I’m telling the truth, or even if my memories are based in anything outside of my own desires and biases writing themselves to my brain (or to my cosmic consciousness, if I were to accept the neo-vedantic interpretation), how would I be sure that this idea has any coherence with what is real or true?

possibly what my brain, in a vat of piss, looks like in another universe. Yes, I'm Jesus in all universes except this one.

possibly what my brain, in a vat of piss, looks like in another universe. Yes, I’m Jesus in all universes except this one.

I mean, how do I know I’m not a brain in a vat? Or (possibly worse) a brain in a jar of piss in some other universe’s postmodern art installment? I could merely be some lame artist’s attempt to piss off (see what I did there) some establishment which worships brains. Although, probably not mine specifically. Yet.

I could just be a piece of hardware being ignored by 6th graders on a field-trip!

Ghastly.

When we start thinking about things such as how we view ourselves, the narratives groups maintain through interpersonal relationships, and even vast and complicated cultures we have to take into account not only what is preferable or comfortable to us, but what is uncomfortable and foreign.  Who we are at any moment is dependent upon our environment, and our environment is an organism which feeds upon itself and those who foster its creation and maintenance (much like the role that Shiva has in some parts of Indian mythology). So, the question is who are the people feeding that beast, and what attributes, motives, and capabilities do they have?

Also, are they total dicks? Because that’s honestly the worst.

Further, what are the walls between your worldview and the worldview of others? Is that wall merely a thin transparent material holding in piss and/or brain-vat liquid (mostly Gatorade, is my guess)? So many questions. So many disturbing, but artful, questions.

Anyway, why do I care? Is it because I am being paid by the Gatorade lobby? Possibly. Alternatively, it might it be because who speaks for a group, what they believe, and what kind of character they have will have implications for that group. And maybe I care about groups of which I am a part. And, eventually, that family, organization, or culture will start to reflect the people that make it up, which is bad if those people are dicks.

That is, there is a very complicated relationship between the things we do, say, and believe and the social/cultural environment in which we live. Our ability to create a worldview is (in part) a combination of insight, self-knowledge, and willingness to be honest with others and ourselves. Any small inherent deviation from honesty, respectability, or consideration for feelings and boundaries of others has large effects on our lives, relationships, and culture because that inherent tendency defines the vast majority of the decisions, actions, and beliefs which define a group of any size or complexity.

What scientists actually do, for example, has an effect on the scientific community. How people in polyamorous relationships behave has effects on the poly community. Not that everyone needs to be flawless; there is no such thing as perfection, after all. But what we believe about ourselves, our families, our communities and ultimately the ideals we strive for or at least proclaim are questions not merely for ourselves and our closest allies, but also those distant from us or even opposed to us.

We should learn from our enemies, as much (if not more) as we learn from our friends, lovers, and even ourselves. Because even where our enemies might be wrong, they are not always completely wrong. And insofar as they may be right, that correctness is a source from which wisdom (or at least its potential) can be gleaned.

It is the fundamental processes of our character which shapes us more than any occasional mistake, misjudgment, or mess we make. That character is like the fluid in our brain-vats; it’s either pissy, delicious, or merely nourishing. It is the ether in which our consciousness (cosmic, vatted, or merely in skulls) propagates. And that character, no matter what direction it flies, will inform how we respond to mistakes, handle conflict, and maintain relationships. Having made a few doosies of mistakes myself, I know of what I speak.

But I do not speak from a point of superiority or of condescension, but simply from experience and growing understanding. And I have learned from my mistakes, my friends, and my enemies.

Comeuppance?

I don’t believe in any cosmic karma or universal balancing of the scales to have good people rewarded or bad people punished. I believe we have to make our own fates, as it were, and so we need to be paying attention to not only ourselves, but also to others. Not that we need to be watching, with bated schadenfreude, other people’s lives for mistakes. But there is some wisdom in understanding the motivations, actions, and characters of those with whom we share our community, space, and life. And we need to look honestly at those things, because (as I have found) sometimes the people closest to you are not who you thought they were.

More importantly, sometimes you may find that you are not who you thought you were. Which is a disquieting thought, even compared to merely being an art-piece in universe X-5473’s art museum. It’s one thing to not be sure of your very nature, it’s quite another to find that maybe you can change that nature, ever so slightly. Somehow, to me at least, the freedom to make myself be who I am is more terrifying than the uncertainty of what I am. That probably says a lot about me, I know.

I’m working on it.

And so we must rely on a communal system of punishment in order to guide our mistakes through the raging storm of culture, family, and individual characters. The unfortunate fact is that some of us will punish ourselves more than we should while others will not even recognize the need for self-correction at all. We are complicated, and means of figuring out what the right way–the true way–of handling a situation is a very complicated and delicate task which requires wisdom, patience, and a willingness to listen to ourselves and to others. It is, in short, an overwhelmingly difficult task, and one which nobody will likely master.

Ethics is Futile

Ethics is Futile

We have to come forward with our vulnerable hearts opened to the world, and declare not only our errors but our strengths.  It is an intersubjective path we walk, one which attempts to take all of our collected experiences and shape them into a “reality” which we can judge better together than alone or segmented into cliques. Truth, therefore, is a kind of transmutation of subjectivities into an attempt to create an objective alloy.

What I’m trying to say is that ethics is like the Borg, except with better fashion sense. At least, I hope so. Aesthetics can’t completely go out the window when coming together into  Communist communal eradication of individuality coming together for the sake of world domination growth and support.

And in the end, no agreement will suit everyone. The leaders of our worlds, whether macro or micro, will be idolized or hated by some, rather than seen as humans struggling with difficulties, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. It is when we idolize or demonize that we fail to see nuances. I, as guilty of this as anyone else, understand that only through nuance can we get to any useful judgment. And sometimes we will find that someone is worth watching and learning from, while others not so much.

Some people, I think, really do just exist in jars of piss.

OK, OK….get to the super cosmically wise point already, bro.

Judgment, like science, is probabilistic rather than absolute. It’s why science does not “prove” anything, but merely makes the best case it can based upon evidence. It’s rather tempting to finally judge someone personally, but that judgment must be ongoing, replicated, and alive if it is to have any meaning. We must watch to see what people do going forward, and stop merely focusing on the past. That is what I hope for myself, and it is what I insist upon my judgment of others.

It’s why we need nuance, and why we must remember that our emotions shade the truth from us.  When others err, we need to remember that we also err. And when it’s time to correct those transgressions around us, it need not be an absolute judgment, but it is a judgment.

And when you find yourself judged, it’s time for insight, reflection, and perhaps some empathy. And it’s may also be time to recognize that perhaps some things will never be forgiven, especially by those who were harmed, but perhaps you can make something better of yourself. That’s the goal; not to be superior or dominant. We don’t achieve moral greatness, we process moral growth.

The truth is that we all fuck up. Some of us more than others. But the kicker is not what we did, but how we responded. It’s less about he initial infraction than it is how we go forward. And sometimes, if you keep refusing to accept what you did and you make it worse and worse, eventually nobody is going to accept any amount of apology or change.

Behavior unchanged is the closest thing, from a judgmental standpoint, we have to absolute truth. Patterns of behavior, habit, and stubbornness are the roots of a personality caught in its own web. For anyone to be judged “objectively” or absolutely, they must be static and unchanging people. They have to be (to go back to the old Latin meaning) perfect, or even Platonic.

And just like with Plato, who was so convinced that his Good, his Ideal, and his Forms existed in perfect (objective) reality, so those who get caught in their own webs will find that perfection, superiority, and their own undeserved confidence (i.e. arrogance) will also be wrong.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. But there is something wrong about stubbornly or blindly holding onto that error for the sake of reputation.

I’ve been stubborn enough in my life, and I’ll strive to be less so in the future.