All posts by mess1955

Politics and the Movie Fargo: For a Little Bit of Money

Today’s Republican party believes that tax cuts for the wealthy, despoiling of the environment, and the loss of health-care from millions is a sufficient reward for enabling the slow rot of constitutional government. They believe Presidential actions that would cause them to be apoplectic if done by a member of the opposing party–interfering with FBI investigations for example—are fine if done by a member of their clan. After all, tax cuts for the wealthy, incarceration of minorities, media based on conspiracy theories, gangsterism and nepotism at the highest levels, and so much more is profitable.

For modern-day Republicans: wealth is power; power is the bottom line; might makes right; and the ends justify the means—as the Greek Sophists, Machiavelli, and Nietzsche taught long ago. And no New York Times/Washington Post op-eds, or moral arguments will decrease their lust for power. At the moment their opponents aren’t relative power equals, so they will do what they want, however immoral, to impose their will.

All this got me to thinking about one of the final scenes in the Coen brothers movie, Fargo.

In the scene, a simple, kindhearted, woman speaks to a psychopath who has killed multiple people for money. (See video above.)

Now the politicians that undermine our political system do collect vast sums of money, and they increasingly have law enforcement under their control, but I wonder if it’s in their long-term interest to undermine a relatively stable social system in which they are the primary beneficiaries. Mob mentality, which increasingly has become their modus operandi, leaves everyone looking over their shoulder and invites more social unrest. Whose to say that the violence they unleash might not come back to haunt them? In the long run, I doubt this state of nature will be good for anyone. But many might have to suffer, as generations before had to do, before they realize this. On the other hand, we may all be in for immense suffering in the coming decades—even those in the world’s most powerful countries.

(For a bit more I suggest two recent op-eds. “The conservative mind has become diseased” by Michael Gerson of the Washington Post; and “Trump doesn’t understand how to be president. The Comey story shows why“, by E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post.)

Good luck America. And good luck to the rest of the world which lives in the shadow of our neurosis.

Review of Dreyfus and Kelly’s, All Things Shining: Reading the Western to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

The late Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly‘s book, All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, addresses the question of finding meaning in the contemporary world. Here is a brief recap with some reflections to follow.

The preface sets out the book’s project:

The world doesn’t matter to us the way it used to. The intense and meaningful lives of Homer’s Greeks, and the grand hierarchy of meaning that structured Dante’s medieval Christian world, both stand in stark contrast to our secular age. The world used to be, in its various forms, a world of sacred, shining things. The shining things now seem far away. This book is intended to bring them close once more. (xi)

The first chapter, entitled “Our Contemporary Nihilism,” focuses on the angst caused by the many choices we now have compared to previous generations. In response people typically adopt a self-confident persona to mask their insecurity, or they become paralyzed by their obsessions and addictions. But neither mollifies our existential anguish, as anxiety pervades western civilization, as our former religious moorings have been lost. In the Middle Ages, for better or worse, nearly everyone believed that God created them and determined their fate. One could choose to turn away from God and sin in medieval times, but being an atheist or rejecting religious ethics altogether wasn’t an available choice. But today ethical prescriptions are tenuous, and nihilism is a viable option. The faith that once comforted does so no longer—today even fervent believers face existential questions.

Chapter 2, “David Foster Wallace’s Nihilism,” discusses Wallace’s sense that something is amiss for millennials in American today:

There’s something sad about it, something that doesn’t have very much to do with physical circumstances, or the economy, or any of the stuff that gets talked about in the news. It’s more like a stomach-level sadness. I see it in myself and my friends in different ways. It manifests itself as a kind of lostness. (24)

While the authors grant that Wallace’s depression informs his views, they also think he offers perceptive insights. Perhaps his depression makes him uniquely sensitive to the vacuity of our culture, and his lesson is that if we pay attention to life we can find in it something sacred and meaningful. But Wallace’s thinking manifests the sense in which the twentieth century forces us to respond to the death of God, and the shared virtues and values this once implied. So we live in a time when God’s existence and all that entails is problematic. Wallace accepts that God is dead, and that our only hope for meaning is found in our individual’s will.

For Wallace we can find some meaning by creating value in a mundane world—creating something that substitutes for the sense of the sacred we have lost. But the authors don’t think this suggestions helps ameliorate our nihilism, for creating our own meaning is too demanding. Yet we can any longer passively accept meaning from God. So then, is there something between the individual creating meaning, or receiving it from the divine?

Chapter 3, “Homer’s Polytheism,” begins with a discussion of Helen of Troy’s affair with Paris that ignited the Trojan War. The authors note that Homer admires Helen, although modern commentators typically argue that Homer didn’t understand the immorality of Helen’s adultery. But what if Homer had a more profound understanding of the situation—that Helen’s eroticism was an admirable human excellence to be valued independent of moral concerns. In other words, Helen is admirable as a “shining example of the sacred erotic dimension of existence.”(62)

The authors then turn to the issue of fortune or luck. For Homer good luck means the Gods favor you, which implies life’s meaningfulness. We should be grateful to the Gods, as fate is no mere statistical aberration. This contrasts harshly with the contemporary view that life is meaningless and ruled by randomness. Moreover, we live better when we think of ourselves, not as agents responsible for our own actions, but as vehicles through which the Gods or fate work. “The Greek’s of Homer’s era lived intense and meaningful lives, constantly open to being overwhelmed by the shining presence of the Olympian gods. As happy polytheists their world … was filled … with wonder and gratitude …” (88)

Chapter 4, “From Aeschylus to Augustine: Monotheism on the Rise,” traces the descent from Homer’s enchanted world to our disenchanted one. It isn’t that progress has left wonder behind, nor that wonder existed only in a long ago past, but that we have lost touch with the wonder that still surrounds us. The story of losing touch with wonder is a long one, but it begins with the Christianity’s emphasis on faith and religious experience, and continues with Augustine’s increasing emphasis on reason and our inner lives. This emphasis on the inner life will lay dormant until the philosophies of Descartes and Kant.

In Chapter 5, “From Dante to Kant: The Attractions and Dangers of Autonomy,” the authors argue that Dante and Aquinas’ attempt to reconcile Aristotle with Christianity moves us closer to nihilism. The key is that the emphasis on the self implies that it must be the sole source of meaning. So Descartes “established our Modern World in which we understand ourselves as self-sufficient subjects standing over against self-sufficient objects. (137) And, given our self-sufficiency, Kant argued that we must take responsiblity for our own actions, and (largely) be the our own source of meaning. Nihilism beckons.

The main thesis of Chapter 6, “Fanaticism, Polytheism, and Melville’s ‘Evil Art’,” is that Herman Melville saw clearly both that nihilism results from the death of Christianity, and a way out. For Melville there is no meaning hidden behind the surface of life, behind the quest for his whale. But this is enough for us, and we can still find meaning in a godless world. However the authors reject this solution, for them this doesn’t seem to be enough.

The final chapter, “Lives Worth Living in a Secular Age,” suggests that we can still get in touch with the sacred through such diverse shining things as an insightful speech, athletic excellence, or scientific breakthroughs. Everything in the world doesn’t shine, but its shining beauty can be found for those who look. “All things aren’t shining, but all the shining things are.” (224)

Reflections – Nihilism haunts our modern world in a way it didn’t haunt ancient Greece or medieval Christendom. Something has been lost between those times and our own. But I don’t share the authors regret about this, and I certainly have no desire to return to these previous epochs. Our history represents (hopefully), a maturing of the Western mind. We have left the gods behind and must create our own meaning in the context of what we know about ourselves and our current place in the universe.

No, all things don’t shine. And we shouldn’t focus exclusively on only the shining things, thereby ignoring all the world’s ills. Instead I’d say that we should appreciate the shining things and try to polish the dull things. But this project will only be successful if we recognize the good and evil, and the knowledge and ignorance, that are inside us all.

Brief Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s, “Because I could not stop for Death”

Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. After studying at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she briefly attended the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family’s house in Amherst. Dickinson never married, and most friendships between her and others depended entirely upon correspondence. For most of her life she lived as a recluse.

While Dickinson was a prolific poet, fewer than a dozen of her nearly 1,800 poems were published during her lifetime. Although her acquaintances were probably aware of her writing, it was not until after her death that her younger sister discovered Dickinson’s cache of poems. Today most experts consider Dickinson to be one of the greatest American poets. Here is probably her most well-known poem, followed by a brief analysis .

Because I could not stop for Death –
He kindly stopped for me –
The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess – in the Ring –
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –
We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –
The Dews drew quivering and Chill –
For only Gossamer, my Gown –
My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground –
The Roof was scarcely visible –
The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity –

Analysis – In this poem, Dickinson speaks from beyond the grave about death—personified as a gentleman who picks her up in a carriage. They drive along slowly, as she ceases to work and views the world she is leaving behind. She grows cold as the dusk falls, and they stop at her burial-place, marked by a small headstone. In the final stanza, we learn that her ride with Death took place centuries ago, but seems to her as if it happened yesterday. When she took that ride with death she first realized that the horses and carriage were taking her to an afterlife.

Commentary – When reading this poem I visualize a deep and introspective woman imagining that she will find recompense for the loneliness of her life in a beautiful afterlife. This is touching, but the philosopher in me doubts any of this is true. Of course I could be wrong.

A Vision of the Future

A colleague elucidated a thoughtful replay to those who believe that culture needs a vision of an ideal future that inspires people to act now so as to help bring about this ideal in the future. In my case this vision is of a future where our post-human descendents attain higher levels of being and consciousness. Our role in the drama is as protagonists in that evolutionary epic, and this provides (roughly) the meaning of our lives.

I would prefer this aspiration not to be “boxed in” to a single faraway, nearly metaphysical ideal (like Heaven, Utopia, Singularity, contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, …). Instead, I proposed that people should have a variety of aspirations and directions, from very concrete ones to achieve here and now, to very far away ones unlikely to be reached during their lifetime, and everything in between.

Rather than seeing the purpose of our lives in a specific goal, we instead think of it as a direction toward which cosmic evolution continually orients itself. As my colleague puts it:

In an evolutionary worldview, it is clear that life does not have an endpoint, but continues to evolve. Therefore, it is more realistic to replace purpose by direction: life evolves in the direction of more complexity, fitness, intelligence, synergy … you name it. Intent is a good word to capture this idea of pointing or directing, as it derives from the Latin “intendere”, which means “reaching towards.”

In practice this implies that as we reach one goal we then continue to strive for another. And this implies that we not box ourselves into a specific goal, but maintain “the flexibility to choose and change destinations any time along your journey, because … you always learn and become wiser while travelling.” So we shouldn’t accept a endpoint like a heaven, but instead remain open to adapting to lessons we learn along our journey.

This seems reasonable. Our overall purpose in life is to increase the good things about life and consciousness—goodness, truth, beauty, justice, liberty, equality, joy, pleasure—and decrease their opposites. We should try to create a heaven on earth, and for the moment we should take small steps toward this goal. In the present incremental steps may include: reshaping our criminal justice to be less punitive and more therapeutic; preserving the biosphere and stopping climate change;  defeating totalitarian political systems; overcoming racism, sexism, and xenophobia, advancing scientific research, elevating the truth versus the omnipresent lying; raising our children so that they arent’ sociopathic; creating more equitable economic systems; and advancing critical thinking and undermining superstition. Needless to say this list is almost endless.

For the moment we can do is what is humanly possible to bring about a better reality. If we do that we will be judge, if we are judge at all, favorably.

Alexandre Maurer on Why Longevity Doesn’t Equal Overpopulation

I have previously replied to the overpopulation objection to radical life extenstion, the most common objection to those of us who want to defeat death. While my defense of indefinite lifespans centers primarily around moral concerns, the computer scientist Alexandre Maurer has recently offered powerful mathematical reasons to doubt the whole premise of the overpopulation objection.

His main conclusion is that fertility rates and not longevity are the true culprits in population increases. A spectacular extension of life will have a negligible effect on population growth compared with a slightly greater fertility rates. To explain, he offers a simple example.

Assume an initial population of 1000 people. The fertility rate is 2, and the life expectancy is 80. Women give birth at 20.Now, let us consider two variations:

Case A: Death disappears. Nobody dies anymore!
Case B: The fertility rate slightly increases from 2 to 2.5.

Which of these two cases will lead to the greater population increase? A quick calculation gives the following results:

– After 500 years, the population will be 26 000 in case A, and at least 780 000 in case B: 30 times more than in case A.
– After 1000 years, the population will be 51 000 in case A, and at least 206 000 000 in case B: more than 4000 times case A! The gap will be enormous.

The point is that the disappearance of death “only causes a linear population increase; while a fertility rate slightly greater than 2 causes an exponential population increase.” And this means that early death is an inefficient means of population control compared to lower birth rates.

Another consideration is that:

There is an inverse correlation between fertility and longevity: population increases the most in the countries with the shortest life expectancy. The common cause is poverty: when infant mortality is high, there is an incentive to have many children to ensure that some of them eventually survive. In addition, when there is no retirement system, the only “retirement insurance” consists in having many children. Further, to this double incentive to have children, must be added the lack of access to contraception, and a lack of information about it.

The implication of all this is that “people concerned about overpopulation should focus on reducing inequalities and improving the standard of living of the poorest countries.”

In fact, in rich countries, underpopulation is more of a problem rather than overpopulation, and rich countries would benefit enourmously from increased healthy lifespans. Moreover, since rich countries will probably be the first to benefit from life-sustaining technologies, “is very unlikely that increasing life expectancy will result in an overpopulation crisis; especially since such an increase will first happen in rich countries, where the fertility rate is low.”

Moreover, better material security generally leads people to have less children. Remember too that a “even if we lived 1000 years, a fertility rate slightly lower than 2 (e.g.,1.9) is sufficient in the long-term to result in a decreasing population.”

So in addition to all the moral arguments I have made in a previous post, I add Maurer’s insight: fertility rates are much more significant in population increase than death rates.