Archive for December, 2008

The curse or blessing of the conscious brain

December 27, 2008

We simply cannot live as Meursault in Albert Camus’ The Stranger (in the former part of the novel).

In The Stranger, Meursault lives solely through sensory experience. He has no plans, no ambitions, he doesn’t follow the dictates of reason, he lacks emotion, he always takes the path of least resistance.

The reality is that we cannot live like that, at least not all the time. We are limited to the extent that we can experience ‘flow’ (Csíkszentmihályi) or ‘self-realisation’ (Maslow) in our activities.

The curse or blessing of the conscious brain is the we humans, unlike simpler animals who only have a subconscious brain, have by nature the necessity to introspect, keep track of experiences, and plan. These faculties can be a source of despair and worry, or joy and excitement. Should we envy the cockroach that does not have these concerns?

See also: In Our Time: Neuroscience

Locus of control and Existentialism

December 27, 2008

The primary ethic of existentialism is concerned with Locus of control, which is perhaps the greatest idea of psychology – though unoriginal.

The point is, regardless of historical circumstances, genetics, family upbringing, etc., you are free and responsible for your own life. You create your own life, meaning and destiny.

The Buddha preached the locus of control also. Rather than looking to judge others, the external world or Satan  – for whatever absurd reason – as the source of pain and misery, the Buddha saw that is was the subjective, human sensitivity to pain that was the problem. A solution to this problem was only to be found in the self.

Why we like ‘good people’

December 27, 2008

Simply, because we have power over them.

The good person has internalised society’s laws and customs to a neurotic degree. They are highly susceptible to social pressure and overly-concerned with what others think of them. They are weak and vulnerable. They use niceness as a defence mechanism. They are not skilled in the use of assertiveness to maintain their dignity, so seek pride in being ‘a nice person’. We feel safe around the good person because they have terrorised and repressed themself.

But within the good person we suspect ressentiment; repressed anger and resentment lie below the surface. They are harsh on themselves, but they are also judgemental of others. They only express their judgemental attitude when they feel safe, because they are too weak to express themselves in open aggression – that would make them feel ashamed, like they are committing an odious sin. However, we sense their judgemental view of the world in our attempts at casual conversation. The good person is nervous and it takes some time to get them to lower their guard (alcohol is a big help!). We sense the good person judging us, sometimes over the most light-hearted, trivial remarks. We are disappointed that the good person can’t simply be unself-conscious for a moment and let others of the hook of judgement also.

I know many good people and I wouldn’t want to be one for a second; what a terrible waste of life.

A theory of laughter

December 27, 2008

Laughter is a response evoked when we have surprisingly succeeded in interpreting the world in a way favourable to us.

Humour breaks down restrictive stereotypes and beliefs; it is the destruction of the austere, of the all too serious. These beliefs are a block to social connectedness, freedom, power and enjoyment.

But it is not only the intentionally humourous that defies the austere and makes us laugh. Any interpretation of the world, though usually light-hearted, can make us laugh.

I personally get a kick out of reading Schopenhauer. What a lovable, laughable old crank! When I interpret Schopenhauer I see the complete idiocy of taking a pessimistic attitude to the world. That makes me feel better about the world and I laugh.

A theory of truth

December 26, 2008

Truth is epiphenomenal. It is established through the covenant of a social group in the macro, through power. But what is the criteria by which power creates a truth? That it serves power’s economic interests was the answer given by Marx. I agree, but that is only one aspect of the criteria and is a broad, high-level perspective. I wish to dig deeper.

Truth for the individual is that which is good for the single individual within the broader social context. For example, at one point in time it may be good for an individual to believe in God like the rest of his group, but at another point it may become intolerable for that individual to maintain such a belief, because the costs of believing in God outweigh the benefits. The individual’s view of the truth of God will change. He will defy his social group, and if he’s lucky he won’t be burnt at the stake. Such changes often do not occur with full awareness. One may change one’s view of truth and only later will its significance be realised. Another person may be so intimidated by the prospect of being burnt alive (and other, less-severe social pressure from the group) that he will unthinkingly go along with anything he’s told. The third case is one person (consciously) assenting to the group’s beliefs for mere expediency; he doesn’t really believe anything the group says it believes, but it is beneficial to his social standing.

Sartre interprets Aesop’s fable of The Fox and the Grapes as an example of an unconscious ‘magical transformation of the world’ in which the fox, denied the delicious grapes, later comes to see them as sour and undesirable. This is emotionally beneficial to the fox, as it nullifies destructive feelings of unsatisfied desire. This is an example of what psychologists call the Laws of the Lightest Load and the Greatest Gain, the tendency to reinterpret the world in ways favourable to the subject. Truth literally changes according to these reinterpretations. It is a subjective truth, but it could also be an ‘objective’ truth, as objective truth is merely the ‘inter-subjective’ negotiated through relations of power within a social group. As exemplified before, one will deny an ‘objective truth’ (e.g. God; as some suppose God to fall in the category of objective truth) if it is not of benefit to the individual. In such a case, one will not claim that their subjective truth is ‘more truthful’ than the group’s objective truth, rather he will claim that the group’s truth is a lie and that his truth an objective one. This is because a claim of ‘objective truth’ carries more power and rhetorical effect than a claim of ‘subjective truth’. Claims of objective truth are more powerful by virtue that it is claimed that not only a single individual believes such a truth. Unless you are Rambo – a very powerful individual, the beliefs of groups are always more powerful than one’s own beliefs. Ever wondered why a monarch refers to themself as ‘we’ rather than I? Because ‘we’ carries more authority and objectivity than ‘I’ by virtue that the monarch is supposed to represent more than the peasant ‘I’.

Freud’s discussed cases where his patients maintained self-concepts which were clearly delusional. Freud interpreted these delusions as coping mechanisms; it was emotionally beneficial to the patient to maintain such illusions rather than try to deal with their repressed beliefs.

Truth is that which is good for the individual. Truth has its source in us; there is no truth-in-itself. But what is good?

I think Nietzsche was closest, “all that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.” I am not going to elaborate on what Nietzsche means by ‘power’ in this context; suffice is to say that it has to do with self-preservation, flourishing, self-expression and creativity.

I must quickly add that one can really piss off Nietzsche and be deluded to think that sacrificing one’s life in this world will acutally lead to self-preservation and flourishing in another. This is another example of Lightest Load and Greatest Gain.

In the last analysis, Kierkegaard was right, truth is subjectivity.

What implications can we draw from this theory of truth? The most alarming is that some perspectives will naturally tend to be off-limits to us. It is not ‘good’ for the religious believer indoctrinated with dogma from birth and surrounded by other pious, bigoted believers to consider perspectives contrary to his own. The dangers are ostracism from his peers and the painful realignment of attitudes to the world. A perspective on the truth free from his familiar dogma is anathema to him.

How can this block to the exploration of perspectives be overcome? For Sartre, that life is in essence meaningless condemns us to be free. Only in a world gifted with meaninglessness are we truly free and responsible for our thoughts, actions and commitments; solely in this world are we justified in creating our own meaning. It is only with the realisation that our existing beliefs are contingent and without meaning in advance that we can even consider exploring alternative perspectives. When we find a perspective that may be ‘better’ for us (hopefully not delusional/other-worldly) this realisation will justify us in tearing down the old beliefs.

What kind of person is the philosopher?

December 26, 2008

There is no simple answer to this question. Below is a brief survey of three different types of philosopher. Each has different motivations for their work and so do their followers, which I have speculated about below.

The political philosopher

Philosophy and politics (and economics) are interwined; philosophy is intensely practical in a socio-political sense.

Prime examples: Karl Marx, the later Jean-Paul Sartre.

Other examples: Plato (The Republic), Aristotle (The Politics), Adam Smith, Michel Foucault, Noam Chomsky

Motivations: Anger, digust and resentment in regards to the treatment of certain people within society, founded on notions of egalitarianism and compassion; despair at what society has become; desire for order, security and efficiency (excellence); visions of a better world.

Philosophy as a guide to living

Philosophy is supposed to do something for you, as an existing individual. It is much ado about ethics. Philosophy is virtually inseperable from psychology.

Prime example: Existentialists (Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, etc.)

Other examples: Socrates, Aristotle, Stoics, Epicureans, Kant, Schopenhauer, Freud.

Motivations: egoism; disgust at the fraudulence and negative outcomes of ‘herd behaviour’; disappointment that humans haven’t reached their potential and are only living half-lives; disgust at the victimhood mentality, strong ethical sense of responsibility; desire for the maximisation of personal meaning and pleasure; self-help and personal development; consolation; the search for a remedy to the distress of existence.

Philosophy is the analysis of concepts

Academic, professional philosophy, chiefly concerned with logic and mathematics, but also linguistics and epistemology.

Prime example: Bertrand Russell

Other examples: the majority of profressional philosophers at universities today

Motivations: shelter from the complexity, stress and social pressures of the real world; cosy university position; prestige amongst peers; pride in self-perceptions of being smarter than others; disdain for less intellectual types; the dictates of industry.

The Antichrist by Nietzsche

December 25, 2008

Audiobook available at LibriVox: The Antichrist

Text is available here.

Other Nietzsche works available as audiobooks: LibriVox: Search Results

Choice quotes:

The “kingdom of heaven” is a state of the heart—not something that is to come “above the earth” or “after death.” The whole concept of natural death is lacking in the evangel: death is no bridge, no transition; it is lacking because it belongs to a wholly different, merely apparent world, useful only insofar as it furnishes signs. The “hour of death” is no Christian conception: “hour,” time, physical life and its crises do not even exist for the teacher of the “glad tidings.” The “kingdom of God” is nothing that one expects; it has no yesterday and no day after tomorrow, it will not come in “a thousand years”—it is an experience of the heart; it is everywhere, it is nowhere.

This “bringer of glad tidings” died as he had lived, as he had taught—not to “redeem men” but to show how one must live. This practice is his legacy to mankind: his behavior before the judges, before the catchpoles, before the accusers and all kinds of slander and scorn—his behavior on the cross. He does not resist, he does not defend his right, he takes no step which might ward off the worst; on the contrary, he provokes it. And he begs, he suffers, he loves with those, in those, who do him evil. Not to resist, not to be angry, not to hold responsible—but to resist not even the evil one—to love him. 

Academic philosophy

December 24, 2008

An oxymoron. Despite retorts of eloquent nonsense, and ad hominem charges of ‘anti-intellectualism’, the popular perception of philosophy in the academy as contrived and lacking application to daily lives remains and is largely correct. Thing is, Academicians don’t really care about this.


December 24, 2008

In Philosophy, the average number of syllables per word is inversely proportional to the philosopher’s sincere intent and ability to tell it how it is.

Two types of Christians

December 23, 2008

There are two types of Christians:

  • The fraud, who doesn’t believe in the Christian God, but has believed authority figures when they have spoken of this God.
  • The real Christian, who believes in the Christian God on no authority, against rationality, in the face of absurdity, alone, with a leap of faith.

Kierkegaard and perhaps a handful of others can be counted as real Christians. The rest, the bulk of all Christians who have ever lived, are frauds.