Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Good Luck Charlie Brown

Ever since I began to understand that everything is pointless, I've started noticing existential angst in the most normal of places. In fact I'd go as far to describe it, as like a big pink elephant sitting there in plain sight, only I was just to stupid to notice it!


And so when I happened across an article which discussed the existential merits of Charles Schulz's 'Peanuts', I was shocked that it has taken me many years to finally appreciate it! From PhilosophyNow:

Existence is problematic and disturbing. In one weekend strip, Schulz succinctly describes the horror of discovering one’s own existence in the world:

'Linus: I’m aware of my tongue ... It’s an awful feeling! Every now and then I become aware that I have a tongue inside my mouth, and then it starts to feel lumped up ... I can’t help it ... I can’t put it out of my mind. ... I keep thinking about where my tongue would be if I weren’t thinking about it, and then I can feel it sort of pressing against my teeth ...'

Sartre devoted an entire book to this experience – his 1938 novel Nausea in which his character Roquentin is alarmed to discover his own actuality. But Linus sums the point up very well in a few frames.

Over at the NewStatesman, I found a similarly interesting article about the importance of Peanuts:
Peanuts was part of my life because it was part of my parents' lives. On my father's dresser was a model of Lucy in a wooden booth, dispensing advice over the sign, "THE DOCTOR IS IN - 5 CENTS". My father was a preacher, a strong but gentle speaker with messages usually on the theme of "Be nice to each other". On one occasion, the church elders half-joked with him that he would be fired if he used Peanuts yet again in his sermon; the next Sunday, he opened with the story of Charlie Brown's eternal infatuation with the little red-haired girl. When life imitated Lucy's booth and he became a marriage and family counsellor, my father decorated his office with Peanuts posters. My mother, who taught high-school psychology, remembers the slogans on her posters - Charlie Brown complaining: "I've been nervous so long that, when I relax, it makes me nervous" and "Even my anxieties have anxieties".
And so perhaps I might benefit from a long afternoon's perusal of Peanuts strips, because as the PhilosophyNow article concludes:
While it is difficult to say what Sartre would have thought of Peanuts, we do know what Schulz thought of Sartre: “I read about him in the New York Times, where he said it was very difficult to be a human being, and the only way to fight against it is to lead an active life – that’s very true.” If any character has shown us the difficulties in existence, it is Charlie Brown

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Foetus First?

A couple of recent comments mentioned children and then I stumbled across this picture at DiscoverMagazine that just says it all. If reproducing is a way of achieving happiness, it's an absurdity nonetheless!

Cool Hand Socrates

Talking of suicide, I came across an article today that I found quite entertaining. Called 'Escape from Anxiety' it is a discussion of existential anxiety as illustrated by the suicide of Socrates and the character of Luke (played by Paul Newman in the film 'Cool Hand Luke').

It couldn't help but peak my interest, considering that I had only recently learnt the story surrounding Socrates' demise. From Wikipedia:

[Socrates] was nevertheless found guilty for corrupting the youth of Athens and sentenced to death by drinking a mix of the poisonous hemlock. Socrates turned down the pleas of Crito to attempt an escape from prison. After drinking the poison, he was instructed to walk around until his limbs felt heavy. After lying down, the man who administered the poison pinched his foot. Socrates could no longer feel his legs. The numbness slowly crept up his body until it reached his heart. Shortly before dying, Socrates spoke his last words to Crito saying, "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Please, don't forget to pay the debt." Asclepius was the Greek god for curing illness, and its likely that Socrates' last words were implied to mean that death is the cure, and freedom, of the soul from the body.

According to Xenophon and Plato, Socrates had an opportunity to escape, as his followers were able to bribe the prison guards. After escaping, Socrates would have had to flee from Athens. However, Socrates refused to escape for several reasons. 1. He believed that such a flight would indicate a fear of death, which he believed no true philosopher has. 2. Even if he did leave, he, and his teaching, would fare no better in another country. 3. Having knowingly agreed to live under the city's laws, he implicitly subjected himself to the possibility of being accused of crimes by its citizens and judged guilty by its jury. To do otherwise would have caused him to break his 'contract' with the state, and by so doing harming it, an act contrary to Socratic principle. The full reasoning behind his refusal to flee is the main subject of The Crito.

According to Xenophon's story of Socrates' defense to the jury, Socrates' purposefully gives a defiant defense to the jury because "he believed he would be better off dead." Xenophon's explanation goes on to describe a defense by Socrates that explains the rigors of old age, and how Socrates will be glad to circumvent these by being sentenced to death. It is also understood that Socrates not only wished to avoid the pains of old age, but also to die because he "actually believed the right time had come for him to die."
And you can find a more detailed account here. What is the plot of 'Cool Hand Luke'? If you've not seen it (and it's an interesting film, with poker to boot!) here is a brief synopsis, from Wikipedia:
Luke is sent to the prison camp for cutting the heads off parking meters one drunken night, and when asked what kind of thing that is for a man to do, his explanation is "Small town, not much to do in the evenin'. Mostly just settlin' up old scores." His unquenchable spirit makes the other prisoners idolize (and idealize) him, and leads to his Christ-like martyrdom at the hands of the authorities.
Luke is a man who could've done so very differently, but chose the only way he could find...

So what what does 'Escape from Anxiety' have to say about it all?:
While Socrates' life teaches about virtue, Luke's life teaches about nonconformity. Though these topics are worthy in themselves, Socrates' and Luke's lives more importantly show the absolute necessity of the life-saving anxiolytic affects offered by belief. Life begins free of anxiety, but developing rationality soon leads to an anxiety-crisis. By erecting all-encompassing belief systems, anxiety is abated. Consequently, if this analysis holds true, then life is anxiety-free when lived according to a belief system and anxiety-ridden when it is not. Death is preferable to a life ridden with anxiety. Ironically, then, in the cases of Socrates and Luke, survival in a life of anxiety requires attaining a belief system that leads to the death of those who hold it.
It goes on:
With Socratic virtue, every action is to be judged and rated according to its virtue. The most virtuous act is then chosen. Also, as Socrates' discovered, even thought and speech must be rated on a scale of virtue as well. Given the enormous number of actions and thoughts, virtue-based philosophy admirably serves the purpose of combating anxiety. Lukean nonconformity similarly serves this purpose well. Nonconformity for Luke mainly takes the form of repeated escapes, disrespecting authority figures on both the inside and outside of prison walls, and refusing to accept a superior position in the prison hierarchy for himself. The great amount of energy, both physical and mental, required by nonconformity more than offsets life's inherent preponderance of anxiety.
And finally:
Claiming that survival depends upon a belief system that directly produces death may seem counterintuitive, but this couterintuition is based on the misunderstood meaning of survival. As Socrates' says, "The most important thing is not life, but the good life." (48b) Life in itself is not worthwhile, only living the good life justly and virtuously is of any worth. If the good life is the virtuous life, then the good life is also synonymous with the life that most efficiently distracts against anxiety. Yet, distraction is subjective, so each individual must choose the belief system that "fits" him best. The sociological factors that contribute to the decision to choose one particular system (perhaps a religious revelation or an injustice) are irrelevant; simply put by Luke, "A man's got to go his own way sometimes." The important aspect is the fact that without this one belief system, life is not worth living. Socrates and Luke thus choose to die happily instead of living anxiously.

As each person encounters the anxiety-crisis, a belief system must be erected in order to overcome it. Consequently, the level of meaningfulness attributed to a belief is not based on the tenets of the belief itself, but the degree to which the belief reduces anxiety. In this simple inverse relationship, the stronger the belief, the more anxiety is reduced. However, knowledge of the latent purpose of this strong belief may weaken it, increasing anxiety. Conclusion: do not read this paper. Or, less elliptically stated, question your belief system and you will suffer the dreadful consequences!
Ha! Dreadful consequences indeed. So here distraction is offered as the route to happiness, through the abatement of anxiety. It sounds a nice idea, to get 'lost in life', but isn't it all a bit silly; dying for cutting the heads off parking meters or stoically drinking poison because of your beliefs? Ignorance is probably bliss, but it's also definitely ignorant too...

Suicide & Sisyphus

I have always been interested in the very biggest of questions. Is there a god? Is there life after death? But ever so slowly I have been coming to the conclusion that the biggest question we face is whether to commit suicide or not, and over the last week I have been trying to get my head around Albert Camus' essay, 'The Myth of Sisyphus' which deals with the very same topic. In fact, on the first page Camus writes:

There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question.
and continues:
One must brush everything aside and go straight to the real problem. One kills oneself because life is not worth living, that is certainly a truth - yet an unfruitful one because it is a truism. But does that insult to existence, that flat denial in which it is plunged come from the fact that is has no meaning? Does its absurdity require one to escape it through hope or suicide...Does the absurd dictate death?
Unlike the novels by Camus that I've recently read, 'The Myth of Sisyphus' is much harder going, and required two readings and lots of cogitating to ensure that I got the gist of it.

If I understand Camus correctly, essentially he argues that there is no point to existence, or meaning to life. Life is absurd. Most people ignore those facts and live their lives in delusion and hope (by believing in god, for example). But the absurd man understands his place in the universe and feels anxiety in the face of it. This anxiety is caused by feelings of how he hopes the world should be, and how the world actually is. We want there to be a god, a point, a meaning, a reason, immortality, but we find a hostile, lonely, pointless universe, indifferent to our survival, and this disparity drives the absurd man's angst.

Camus desires a real solution to this fundamental question. He doesn't want to just accept false hope because it is the easiest solution. And what does he conclude?:
There is thus a metaphysical honour in enduring the world's absurdity. Conquest or play-acting, multiple loves, absurd revolt are tributes that man pays to his dignity in a campaign in which he is defeated in advance. It is merely a matter of being faithful to the rule of battle. That thought may suffice to sustain a mind; it has supported and still supports whole civilizations. War cannot be negated. One must live it or die of it. So it is with the absurd: it is a question of breathing with it, of recognizing its lessons and recovering their flesh. In this regard the absurd joy par excellence is creation. 'Art and nothing but art,' said Nietzsche; 'we have art in order not to die of the truth.'
Camus uses the Myth of Sisyphus to illustrate his argument:

The gods had condemned Sisyphus to ceaselessly rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, whence the stone would fall back of its own weight. They had thought with some reason that there is no more dreadful punishment than futile and hopeless labor.

If one believes Homer, Sisyphus was the wisest and most prudent of mortals. According to another tradition, however, he was disposed to practice the profession of highwayman. I see no contradiction in this. Opinions differ as to the reasons why he became the futile laborer of the underworld. To begin with, he is accused of a certain levity in regard to the gods. He stole their secrets. Egina, the daughter of Esopus, was carried off by Jupiter. The father was shocked by that disappearance and complained to Sisyphus. He, who knew of the abduction, offered to tell about it on condition that Esopus would give water to the citadel of Corinth. To the celestial thunderbolts he preferred the benediction of water. He was punished for this in the underworld. Homer tells us also that Sisyphus had put Death in chains. Pluto could not endure the sight of his deserted, silent empire. He dispatched the god of war, who liberated Death from the hands of her conqueror.

It is said that Sisyphus, being near to death, rashly wanted to test his wife's love. He ordered her to cast his unburied body into the middle of the public square. Sisyphus woke up in the underworld. And there, annoyed by an obedience so contrary to human love, he obtained from Pluto permission to return to earth in order to chastise his wife. But when he had seen again the face of this world, enjoyed water and sun, warm stones and the sea, he no longer wanted to go back to the infernal darkness. Recalls, signs of anger, warnings were of no avail. Many years more he lived facing the curve of the gulf, the sparkling sea, and the smiles of earth. A decree of the gods was necessary. Mercury came and seized the impudent man by the collar and, snatching him from his joys, lead him forcibly back to the underworld, where his rock was ready for him.

You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is, as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing. This is the price that must be paid for the passions of this earth. Nothing is told us about Sisyphus in the underworld. Myths are made for the imagination to breathe life into them. As for this myth, one sees merely the whole effort of a body straining to raise the huge stone, to roll it, and push it up a slope a hundred times over; one sees the face screwed up, the cheek tight against the stone, the shoulder bracing the clay-covered mass, the foot wedging it, the fresh start with arms outstretched, the wholly human security of two earth-clotted hands. At the very end of his long effort measured by skyless space and time without depth, the purpose is achieved. Then Sisyphus watches the stone rush down in a few moments toward the lower world whence he will have to push it up again toward the summit. He goes back down to the plain.

It is during that return, that pause, that Sisyphus interests me. A face that toils so close to stones is already stone itself! I see that man going back down with a heavy yet measured step toward the torment of which he will never know the end. That hour like a breathing-space which returns as surely as his suffering, that is the hour of consciousness. At each of those moments when he leaves the heights and gradually sinks toward the lairs of the gods, he is superior to his fate. He is stronger than his rock.

If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he thinks of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that can not be surmounted by scorn.

If the descent is thus sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much. Again I fancy Sisyphus returning toward his rock, and the sorrow was in the beginning. When the images of earth cling too tightly to memory, when the call of happiness becomes too insistent, it happens that melancholy arises in man's heart: this is the rock's victory, this is the rock itself. The boundless grief is too heavy to bear. These are our nights of Gethsemane. But crushing truths perish from being acknowledged. Thus, Edipus at the outset obeys fate without knowing it. But from the moment he knows, his tragedy begins. Yet at the same moment, blind and desperate, he realizes that the only bond linking him to the world is the cool hand of a girl. Then a tremendous remark rings out: "Despite so many ordeals, my advanced age and the nobility of my soul make me conclude that all is well." Sophocles' Edipus, like Dostoevsky's Kirilov, thus gives the recipe for the absurd victory. Ancient wisdom confirms modern heroism.

One does not discover the absurd without being tempted to write a manual of happiness. "What!---by such narrow ways--?" There is but one world, however. Happiness and the absurd are two sons of the same earth. They are inseparable. It would be a mistake to say that happiness necessarily springs from the absurd. Discovery. It happens as well that the felling of the absurd springs from happiness. "I conclude that all is well," says Edipus, and that remark is sacred. It echoes in the wild and limited universe of man. It teaches that all is not, has not been, exhausted. It drives out of this world a god who had come into it with dissatisfaction and a preference for futile suffering. It makes of fate a human matter, which must be settled among men.

All Sisyphus' silent joy is contained therein. His fate belongs to him. His rock is a thing. Likewise, the absurd man, when he contemplates his torment, silences all the idols. In the universe suddenly restored to its silence, the myriad wondering little voices of the earth rise up. Unconscious, secret calls, invitations from all the faces, they are the necessary reverse and price of victory. There is no sun without shadow, and it is essential to know the night. The absurd man says yes and his efforts will henceforth be unceasing. If there is a personal fate, there is no higher destiny, or at least there is, but one which he concludes is inevitable and despicable. For the rest, he knows himself to be the master of his days. At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning toward his rock, in that slight pivoting he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which become his fate, created by him, combined under his memory's eye and soon sealed by his death. Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see who knows that the night has no end, he is still on the go. The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one's burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

And my opinion is that I am not sold. Camus has failed to convince me that Sisyphus would indeed be happy, faced with unending torture (lest we forget that boredom and solitary confinement are tortures all the same). I don't have to imagine a happy Sisyphus, and in fact thinking about the myth, I can well imagine a bitter and depressed Sisyphus. Having attempted to prevent death, this is his repayment? To be taken away from his life and his family, and commanded by tyrannical gods to do meaningless work. 'Let me out of here! I demand to be freed.' 'Revolt indeed comrades! Wherefore art thou humanity?... ' And as time goes on, loneliness and futility set in. What is one step, up or down, when the journey is an infinite toil? Sisyphus may as well commit suicide now, because he hasn't got anything to look forward to, except maybe kindness from the gods and we can never be so lucky. What Sisyphus has, is the knowledge that his punishment is infinite. It then matters not whether he kills himself now, or in a hundred million steps. The choice will be his to make freely; the only power he has in his domain; to give up, when the pain gets too much (and deprive the gods of their sport).

In reality, no human can despair over an infinite punishment doled out by the gods. We are each given a finite sentence of life, without the certainty that Sisyphus is privilege to. Perhaps Sisyphus cannot commit suicide (and how do you know until you try) but human existence is not so assured. For those who find their existence a torture, suicide appears a legitimate response. Arguing that even in a mad deluded world, you should just fuck or make art (as Camus seems to suggest) is ludicrous. Give the monkey a banana, because I'm not impressed. If an absurd man wishes to make absurd art, then that is all well and good. But an absurd man who rejects false hope and absurd hobbies is left with complete nothingness. The choice then between inane pastimes and suicide is made much harder.

Existence is absurd. Suicide is absurd. None of us choose to be born. If we find the absurdity of existence too much to bear, at least the absurdity of suicide brings with it the end of angst and the end of absurdity. It seems Camus was right that suicide really is the greatest philosophical question. My own feelings on the matter are that either you play along and enjoy absurdity (to some degree) or you spend your life bitter, twisted and bored. Is suicide preferable to either solution, I really do not know?..

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Big Bang to Man

I'm already missing Carl Sagan's Cosmos, so here is one of the most important clips from the whole series. It tells the tale of the big bang to the evolution of man, in about 4 minutes and is exactly how my own mind visualises the universe and human history!

When you are watching it bear in mind that no god created the universe, made the earth or started life. As Carl says, it is all a big accident! And also remember that all of our ancestors are dead and one day, we will ourselves join that illustrious group of organisms, that came, saw and returned to non-existence...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fat Louie on Precognition

Let's take a step back in time. This clip is from the very first documentary I participated in, about the premonitions of David Mandell (who I've mentioned before) and is proof that only a few years ago, I really was a big, fat paranormal believer!

Bad Psychics!

Here's something that might make you laugh (or cringe). The clip, posted on BadPsychics.com, is from a BBC show that I briefly appeared on, on Wednesday night. Called Nolan Live, I was supposed to be providing a sceptical opinion on the mediumship skills of Derek Acorah.

Unfortunately, it didn't quite go to plan, I got a bit flustered, and apparently the worst thing you can do on live TV is call heaven a load of rubbish and christianity a cult! All in all, it was a complete waste of time, and made me realise that the wider world just isn't going to change in my lifetime. People just don't want to hear that mediums are either deluded fools or charlatans, that there is no god or afterlife, and that everything is pointless.

This is why I gave up parapsychology and still believe discourse with believers is pointless! Good for a giggle though?...

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Are Politicians Born Bad?

I've been delaying this post for a while, because I wanted to discuss this topic after covering the origins of religion. However, here I am...

Now I've mentioned before that I believe there is a political element to religion that many authors often ignore. Religion has been used in the past, and is still used, as a method for keeping certain people ignorant and others in power. No doubt kingdoms were forged through brute force, whereas the priesthood gained power through stealth, and there have been groups of people throughout history, who have sought to prevent progress on the grounds of heresy. Proof that the great religions have a vested interest in maintaining a status quo. Of Ron Hubbard (the founder of scientology) it is said:

"... [Hubbard] began making statements to the effect that any writer who really wished to make money should stop writing and develop [a] religion, or devise a new psychiatric method. Harlan Ellison's version (Time Out, UK, No 332) is that Hubbard is reputed to have told [John W.] Campbell, "I'm going to invent a religion that's going to make me a fortune. I'm tired of writing for a penny a word."
So ha to the fools who fall for the tricks of charlatans! Moving on, in a recent post on psychopaths I asked:
isn't it intelligent to accrue resources and reproductive opportunities through deception, force and social manipulation? If you can get others to give you what you want, through the minimal effort on your part, isn't that an understandable strategy? And here I want to mention the idea of nefarious intentions: are there people who could be defined as a psychopath and yet choose to do what they do, understanding the ramifications? Are there people that just don't care, as long as they are okay? If you understand (or at least suspect) that everything is pointless, is there anything other than a man-made 'moral' code, which actually stops you from doing what you want?
And when I asked these questions I had certain people in mind. Interestingly, I recently discovered this article:

Cherie Blair and George W Bush have both eschewed typical light holiday reading this summer in favour of worthier tomes. Whereas Mrs Blair was pictured half way through the 800-page Postwar, an account of Europe’s recent history, President Bush got to grips with The Outsider, a philosophical novel by French intellectual Albert Camus.

And I admit that I do sometimes wonder whether the whole entire thing isn't an absurd joke. Bush reading Camus at Bohemian Grove. That is a genuinely scary thought.

I want to pose a serious question: Since men have known (or at least suspected) that everything is pointless for at least 2000 years or more, have certain individuals seen humanity as fair game to manipulate and control, to further their own ends? If one man's machine is another man's slave, isn't it at least possible that the modern world is in some part a contrived and absurd corruption, enforced on the majority? If I made a race of robots to do my bidding, would I be a bad man? What if I raised humans to the same ends?

Another, admittedly kooky but interesting documentary is Freedom to Fascism, which, despite some reviews I'd read, is worth watching and raises some interesting points. Here something I quoted recently from H.G. Wells is relevant:
if it is true that the majority of able spirits among the contemporary rich are, for the sake of power and preeminence, deliberately impoverishing a community which need not be impoverished, then the conception pervading this book of the progressive construction of a universally prosperous economic world community out of the current social order, is unsound. There is nothing to be hoped for along that line. There is nothing for it but, as the Marxists teach, a class war against the rich and the able, social insurrection, the breaking up of the whole contemporary organization of mankind in wrath and disgust, and beginning again upon a different ground plan, with whatever hope is left to us, amidst the ruins.
And I can't help but imagine, that if Herbert Wells were alive today, he'd be very suspicious of all the warmongering and a lot less optimistic about the fate of humanity.

Finally, are politicians born bad?:

The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

No Treason

People being murdered is hardly a newsworthy event (except perhaps to the few involved), but I've already noticed the US Constitution being brought out to defend the right to bear arms. The argument goes that if the college students had had concealed weapons, somebody would have averted the slaughter, Jack Bower style.

All well and good, but certainly I can't imagine the same kind of loss of life if the murderer had only had a club at his disposal. Weapons makers must take some responsibility.

That being said, I also can't imagine a world without firearms, and certainly understand the strong feeling some have, in wanting to preserve their very existence. You only have one life and it is entirely reasonable to prevent other humans taking it!

Turning then to the US Constitution, I recently found this fascinating text by Lysander Spooner, called No Treason, which questions the very authority of the US Constitution and raises serious points about governments in general. Some extracts:

The Constitution has no inherent authority or obligation. It has no authority or obligation at all, unless as a contract between man and man. And it does not so much as even purport to be a contract between persons now existing. It purports, at most, to be only a contract between persons living eighty years ago. And it can be supposed to have been a contract then only between persons who had already come to years of discretion, so as to be competent to make reasonable and obligatory contracts. Furthermore, we know, historically, that only a small portion even of the people then existing were consulted on the subject, or asked, or permitted to express either their consent or dissent in any formal manner. Those persons, if any, who did give their consent formally, are all dead now. Most of them have been dead forty, fifty, sixty, or seventy years. And the Constitution, so far as it was their contract, died with them. They had no natural power or right to make it obligatory upon their children. It is not only plainly impossible, in the nature of things, that they could bind their posterity, but they did not even attempt to bind them. That is to say, the instrument does not purport to be an agreement between any body but "the people" then existing; nor does it, either expressly or impliedly, assert any right, power, or disposition, on their part, to bind anybody but themselves.

... It is obvious that, on general principles of law and reason, there exists no such thing as a government created by, or resting upon, any consent, compact, or agreement of "the people of the United States" with each other; that the only visible, tangible, responsible government that exists, is that of a few individuals only, who act in concert, and call themselves by the several names of senators, representatives, presidents, judges, marshals, treasurers, collectors, generals, colonels, captains, etc., etc.

On general principles of law and reason, it is of no importance whatever that those few individuals profess to be the agents and representatives of "the people of the United States"; since they can show no credentials from the people themselves; they were never appointed as agents or representatives in any open, authentic manner; they do not themselves know, and have no means of knowing, and cannot prove, who their principals (as they call them) are individually; and consequently cannot, in law or reason, be said to have any principals at all.

It is obvious, too, that if these alleged principals ever did appoint these pretended agents, or representatives, they appointed them secretly (by secret ballot), and in a way to avoid all personal responsibility for their acts; that, at most, these alleged principals put these pretended agents forward for the most criminal purposes, viz.: to plunder the people of their property, and restrain them of their liberty; and that the only authority that these alleged principals have for so doing, is simply a tacit understanding among themselves that they will imprison, shoot, or hang every man who resists the exactions and restraints which their agents or representatives may impose upon them.

Thus it is obvious that the only visible, tangible government we have is made up of these professed agents or representatives of a secret band of robbers and murderers, who, to cover up, or gloss over, their robberies and murders, have taken to themselves the title of "the people of the United States"; and who, on the pretense of being "the people of the United States," assert their right to subject to their dominion, and to control and dispose of at their pleasure, all property and persons found in the United States.

...What is important to be noticed is, that these so-called presidents, senators, and representatives, these pretended agents of all "the people of the United States," the moment their exactions meet with any formidable resistance from any portion of "the people" themselves, are obliged, like their co-robbers and murderers in Europe, to fly at once to the lenders of blood money, for the means to sustain their power. And they borrow their money on the same principle, and for the same purpose, viz., to be expended in shooting down all those "people of the United States"--their own constituents and principals, as they profess to call them--who resist the robberies and enslavement which these borrowers of the money are practising upon them. And they expect to repay the loans, if at all, only from the proceeds of the future robberies, which they anticipate it will be easy for them and their successors to perpetrate through a long series of years, upon their pretended principals, if they can but shoot down now some hundreds of thousands of them, and thus strike terror into the rest. Perhaps the facts were never made more evident, in any country on the globe, than in our own, that these soulless blood-money loan-mongers are the real rulers; that they rule from the most sordid and mercenary motives; that the ostensible government, the presidents, senators, and representatives, so called, are merely their tools; and that no ideas of, or regard for, justice or liberty had anything to do in inducing them to lend their money for the war.
And I couldn't believe this was written in 1870, not the modern day. How disappointing that times have little changed!

The Right To Be Lazy

Today, I happened upon an interesting person, Paul Lafargue, who (according to Wikipedia) was:

a French revolutionary Marxist socialist journalist, political writer and activist; he was Karl Marx's son-in-law, having married his second daughter Laura. His best known work is The Right to Be Lazy. Born in Santiago de Cuba of a Franco-Caribbean family, Lafargue spent most of his life in France, with periods in England and Spain. At the age of 69, he and Laura died together in a suicide pact.
And I was intrigued about this man. What had Marx's son-in-law actually argued, in 'The Right to Be Lazy'? Thankfully I discovered an online version and recommend it as a very thought provoking and entertaining read. Some extracts:
A strange delusion possesses the working classes of the nations where capitalist civilization holds its sway. This delusion drags in its train the individual and social woes which for two centuries have tortured sad humanity. This delusion is the love of work, the furious passion for work, pushed even to the exhaustion of the vital force of the individual and his progeny. Instead of opposing this mental aberration, the priests, the economists and the moralists have cast a sacred halo over work. Blind and finite men, they have wished to be wiser than their God; weak and contemptible men, they have presumed to rehabilitate what their God had cursed.

...Jesus, in his sermon on the Mount, preached idleness: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” Jehovah the bearded and angry god, gave his worshippers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for all eternity.

...Our epoch has been called the century of work. It is in fact the century of pain, misery and corruption.

...Speaking of the labor of the workshop, Villermé adds: “It is not a work, a task, it is a torture and it is inflicted on children of six to eight years. It is this long torture day after day which wastes away the laborers in the cotton spinning factories”. And as to the duration of the work Villermé observes, that the convicts in prisons work but ten hours, the slaves in the west Indies work but nine hours, while there existed in France after its Revolution of 1789, which had proclaimed the pompous Rights of Man “factories where the day was sixteen hours, out of which the laborers were allowed only an hour and a half for meals.” What a miserable abortion of the revolutionary principles of the bourgeoisie! What woeful gifts from its god Progress! The philanthropists hail as benefactors of humanity those who having done nothing to become rich, give work to the poor. Far better were it to scatter pestilence and to poison the springs than to erect a capitalist factory in the midst of a rural population. Introduce factory work, and farewell joy, health and liberty; farewell to all that makes life beautiful and worth living.

...“The prejudice of slavery dominated the minds of Pythagoras and Aristotle,” – this has been written disdainfully; and yet Aristotle foresaw: “that if every tool could by itself execute its proper function, as the masterpieces of Daedalus moved themselves or as the tripods of Vulcan set themselves spontaneously at their sacred work; if for example the shuttles of the weavers did their own weaving, the foreman of the workshop would have no more need of helpers, nor the master of slaves.”

Aristotle’s dream is our reality. Our machines, with breath of fire, with limbs of unwearying steel, with fruitfulness, wonderful inexhaustible, accomplish by themselves with docility their sacred labor. And nevertheless the genius of the great philosophers of capitalism remains dominated by the prejudice of the wage system, worst of slaveries. They do not yet understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the god who shall redeem man from the sordidae artes and from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty.

...Like Christ, the doleful personification of ancient slavery, the men, the women and the children of the proletariat have been climbing painfully for a century up the hard Calvary of pain; for a century compulsory toil has broken their bones, bruised their flesh, tortured their nerves; for a century hunger has torn their entrails and their brains. O Laziness, have pity on our long misery! O Laziness, mother of the arts and noble virtues, be thou the balm of human anguish!
It seems Lafargue was correct about a lot of things and funnily enough, earlier this week, I left this comment at the interesting blog, Duplicitous Primates:
...this evening I watched the episode [of Cosmos] where [Carl Sagan] discusses the possibility of extraterrestrial life and why there aren't aliens visiting us already. Unfortunately he neglects the possibility that when a species attains enough scientific knowledge and understands that everything is pointless, it doesn't see the value in making the huge effort to visit another bunch of equally pointless beings.
And maybe the really clever species are the ones that sort out the big problems, and then sit back (take the phone of the hook) and relax...

Monday, April 16, 2007

The Outlook of Mankind

Here's an extract from 'The Work, Wealth & Happiness of Mankind' by H.G. Wells:

Uncertainties in the Human Outlook

Let us before we conclude devote a section to the possibility that this human adventure will fail. We have no guarantee against many sorts of cosmic disaster. There is the risk, an infinitesimal but real risk, of meteoric bodies hurtling through our system, bodies so large and coming so near to us as to destroy our planet as a home for life. So remote is such a mischance that Sir James Jeans can dismiss it as negligible. If the lot falls against us in spite of the odds, there is nothing to be said or done. Fate will end the story.

But other sinister possibilities, less catastrophic but in the end as decisive, are not so easily dismissed. We still know very little of the secular changes of climate, and it is conceivable that in quite a few years, in a hundred thousand or a thousand thousand, that is to say, this planet may be returning to a phase of widespread glaciation, or temperature may be rising to universal tropical and ultra-tropical conditions. Within the sun, for all we know, explosive forces are brewing - or on our earth itself - to heat or chill or shatter. Or again, if steady urgencies of upheaval and disturbance are not still astir under the feet of our race, the rains and rivers and waves will presently wear down our mountains and hills and flatten out our lands until one monotonous landscape of plains of exhausted soil and swamps and lagoons of tepid water has replaced the familiar scenery of our time. Or if these terrestrial tensions increase, our race will pass into a period of volcanic violence and earthquakes, forces from within breaking loose to thrust up new mountain chains and giving fresh directions to wind and sea current, and beyond adjustment.

Here plainly we are still under the sway of the Fates. Presently we may be able to foretell; later we may even control such fluctuations, but certainly the sun and planets and our little globe have their own motions and changes regardless of our needs and desires. The cards as they are played are being swept up for a fresh deal. The hand our race must play to-morrow may be very different from the hand we play to-day. There are no fixed conditions to human life, and if this new-born world community of ours is to go on through vast periods of time, man will have to be for ever guessing new riddles. Will he be able to get so far with his science as map out at length in their due order all the coming throws of the planetary roulette? Or get a mastery of the wheel? There will have to be an encyclopedia of knowledge for such feats as that, vaster than anything we can dream of to-day. There will have to be a mightier sort of man, very marvellously educated, and perhaps by virtue of an advancing science of eugenics innately better, to do things on that scale.

Such are the difficulties and problems for our descendants, that must slowly develop themselves age by age, even if they solve the riddles of our present civilization. But will mankind ever solve these immediate problems? There was recently published a very suggestive and amusing book by Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men. It is an imaginary history upon an astronomical scale of the future of humanity, a grimly cheerful mixture of biology, burlesque and satire. He sees our present species blundering through some further great wars and unified at last under American rule into one world state, a world state of a harshly plutocratic type which undergoes an entirely incredible moral and intellectual degeneration and ends in a new Dark Age. Homo sapiens is then practically exterminated by a catastrophe he has himself provoked, and only a few individuals survive obscurely to become the progenitors of two species of Homo who presently increase and come into conflict. The remoter speculations of Mr. Stapledon about the succession of latter Hominidae and their final extinction, vivid and amusing though they are, and stimulating as they will prove to those unversed in biological and cosmological possibilities, need not be discussed here. But the nearer issues he broaches do pose very disturbingly the considerable probability of a failure in our contemporary civilization to anticipate and prevent fresh world warfare and an economic crash. I see that possible economic crash nearer and larger and more important that he does, as a greater menace, indeed, than the militant nationalism from which it arises. But I believe in human sanity more than he does, I believe that that widely diffused will and understanding which I have termed "open conspiracy" may be strong enough to carry the race through the economic stresses ahead of us, and to delay, minimize and finally repulse the onset of war.

There has been a great quickening of the general intelligence about political and economic life in recent years, and the man of action and the man of thought have been drawn nearer together. There may be some dark chapters in human history still to be written, and provisional governments and a mightier Judge Lynch may figure in the drama. The forces that will carry on, develop and realize the abounding promise of our present civilization are by no means sure of victory; they may experience huge and tragic set-backs; but the balance of probability seems to be largely in their favour. If they win out, it will be men of our own kind, better, according to our present values, but men still - not beings specifically different and beyond our sympathy - who with a whole planet organized for the conflict will face greater problems, the long-period problems of terrestrial and cosmic changes which advance upon us behind the skirmishing dangers of to-day.

But nothing is certain. Men may breed and bicker too long, be overtaken by some swift universal epidemic they have had no time to arrest, perish of a phosphorous famine, or be destroyed by some war machine they have had the ability to invent but not the intelligence to control. In the Mesozoic Age great reptiles multiplied and dominated the earth, and suddenly they passed away. In the Miocene flourished countless varieties of huge mammals, now altogether extinguished. Why should we suppose that we are specially favoured items in the spectacle of existence. Millions of us are wearied, chased about, heartbroken, wounded and killed, for no evident good, in war; millions are destroyed by accidents without apparent reason or justice; beasts of prey in India and Africa slay and eat their thousands of "man the master" every year; millions die in unalleviated pain through a multitude of cruel diseases. Is there any difference in quality between one single case of a dear human being killed by cancer and the murder of a world? It is simply a difference of numbers and scale. If the universe can kill a child unjustly, so it can kill a race or a planet unjustly. If so many individual lives end tragically, why should not the whole species end tragically?

We may say, "It shall not", but what weight have such words?

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Plague

Over a couple of recent posts I touched on the topic of the holocaust and declared that I had sympathy for those who found themselves depressed or angered in that situation. This week I've been reading a book which deals with another kind of concentration camp, but this time, instead of being manned by psychopathic Nazis, Albert Camus' 'The Plague' is a story of a town held siege by a particularly destructive form of bubonic plague. This is the second novel by Camus that I've read and again I was very impressed. It is a compelling tale of a normal cosmopolitan town on the Algerian coast, which is slowly overcome by a pestilence of biblical proportions. At first the occupants of the town are merely morbidly curious about the large numbers of dead rats, which pile in the streets, oozing blood. But when people begin to die and the town is quarantined from the rest of existence, all of the people of Oran find themselves at the mercy of a disease that kills without discrimination.

And I was struck at the contrast between Camus' hypothetical battle between man and bacterium, and the real life horrors of the holocaust. If the numbers of humans who had been killed due to war, stood opposite those who had been killed due to disease, surely the sick would outnumber the war-dead by many factors? And so, though we may not find ourselves in a concentration camp run by Nazis, we all (as one of the characters himself declares) carry the plague. But the plague is also not just an example of man's seemingly endless fight against disease (great as that fight is), but also a metaphor for life itself. In the midst of life, we are in death. The coming of the plague removed the blindfold from the eyes of the townspeople and revealed the stark reality of existence: that death is a certainty and existence is absurd!

The plague itself is ever present in the novel, although the reader rarely has to deal with it directly. Much of the book describes the behaviour of a few different men: a journalist trapped in the unfamiliar town, desperate to return to his wife outside the walls. The atheist doctor, who tries to help people and deal with the here and now. There are also some absurd characters, like a man who attempts suicide, whose mood improves greatly when everyone else is struck down by despair. And there is a whimsical author, who desperately attempts to forge a perfect paragraph (chopping and changing it often, and usually with very little difference) only to throw the whole thing on the fire when he is finally struck down with the plague.

One of the most interesting characters is a clergyman, who gives a rousing speech when the pestilence first begins to take victims, arguing that the townspeople had brought it on themselves. After witnessing the horrible suffering and death of a small child, the same clergyman was roused to even greater heights of religious fervour. An extract:

The preacher paused, and Rieux heard more clearly the whistling of the wind outside; judging by the sounds that came in below the closed doors, it had risen to storm-pitch. Then he heard Father Paneloux's voice again. He was saying that the total acceptance of which he had been speaking was not to be taken in the limited sense usually given to the words; he was not thinking of mere resignation or even of that harder virtue, humility. It involved humiliation, but a humiliation to which the person humiliated gave full assent. True, the agony of a child was humiliating to the heart and to the mind. But that was why we had to come to terms with it. And that, too, was why - and here Paneloux assured those present that it was not easy to say what he was about to say - since it was God's will, we, too, should will it. Thus and thus only the Christian could face the problem squarely and, scorning subterfuge, pierce the heart of the supreme issue, the essential choice. And his choice would be to believe everything, so as not to be forced into denying everything. Like those worthy women who, after learning that buboes were the natural tissue through which the body cast out infection, went to church and prayed, 'Please, God, give him buboes,' thus the Christian should yield himself wholly to the divine will, even though it passed his understanding.
How impotent religion is, in the face of natural selection! I thoroughly enjoyed 'The Plague' (if enjoyed is quite the right word) and it helped me to imagine how I would feel, imprisoned within a town, where everyone was slowly dying. If my loved ones too, were struck down with the fatal disease and taken away to die alone, what else could I do, but shake my fist in the air and berate existence? As the book notes on closing, plagues come, but never really go; they merely lay dormant waiting for another opportunity to exact more destruction in the future...

I'll end with one of Camus' amusing examples of the odd things that people do to fill their time between Point A (birth) to Point B (death):
From Tarrou's notes we gather that the old man, a draper by occupation, decided at the age of fifty that he'd done enough work for a lifetime. He took to his bed and never left it again - but not because of his asthma, which would not have prevented his getting about. A small fixed income had seen him through to his present age, seventy-five, and the years had not damped his cheerfulness. He couldn't bear the sight of a watch, and indeed there wasn't one in the whole house. 'Watches,' he said 'are silly gadgets, and dear at that.' He worked out the time - that is to say, the time for meals - with his two saucepans, one of which was always full of peas when he woke in the morning. He filled the other, pea by pea, at a constant, carefully regulated speed. Thus time for him was reckoned by these pans and he could take his bearings in it at any moment of the day. 'Every fifteen pans,' he said, 'it's feeding-time. What could be simpler?'
What indeed?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Angst Aid

I'm an angsty guy, and the last couple of posts have inspired me to find out more about existential therapy. In doing so I happened upon an interesting paper, called 'Existential Anxiety and Existential Joy'. How could I resist? An extract:


He who has a why to live can bear almost any how. Friedrich Nietzsche

Many existentialists (although by all means not all of them) concur with the view that life is essentially meaningless. A leading existential therapist (Spinelli), for example, writes:

Viewed from a wide variety of perspectives one could rightly conclude that life itself is a pointless enterprise. (2001, p.9)

On the other hand, a number of existential psychologists point out that humans require meaning to survive (see, for example, Frankl, 1970, 1978; Yalom, 1980). One can easily feel lost in a meaningless world which can be a great source of anxiety. The most frequent reason given for suicide is that the person has no purpose for which to continue living (Farber, 1968). So, even if we agree with Spinelli’s overconfident claim that there is no meaning of life, creating meaning in one’s life needs to be considered.
And the paper goes on to argue that:
existential anxiety can be transcended and replaced with a sense of existential joy. This requires having a frame of mind that is characterised by the synthesis of opposites (such as predictability and uncertainty, being and nothingness, life and death, individuality and belonging, etc.). This is not to say that this frame of mind makes life a bed of roses. A person with such an attitude will still at times experience unpleasant feelings or be unhappy, but if she does not allow herself to be thrown back in the world of opposites, the underlying feeling of joy can be maintained, which would give her the capacity to face whatever comes without anxiety.
So here I nail my colours to the mast. If tomorrow, I were whisked away to a desert island, allowed to live in peace, with a coconut tree on one side and a breadfruit tree on the other, I might attain happiness for a short while. Nothing like the existential joy that the paper talks about, but perhaps for a short time I might be allowed to enjoy, relatively stress free, that singularly unique experience that is, being alive.

However, such a satisfied state will not last forever, and sooner or later something bad is going to happen. My body will age and begin to fail, and then that fear of death kicks back in, leaving me berating existence until the last breath.

I therefore disagree that existential joy is achieved through transcending existential anxiety. It is merely the potential highpoint of a trajectory, from nothing, back to nothing. It is little wonder that people try their hardest to avoid the truth. What choice do you really have?

But at last I can recommend a minor aid to those who suffer existential angst, as I do! One of my symptoms is an incessant grinding of my teeth, as I sleep. I hardly remember my dreams, but I have the strong feeling that I continue my angst into sleep, and after too long waking up with a mouthful of ground enamel (and the realization that I am slowly losing my teeth, through stealth) I was advised to visit a dentist. Who provided me with a gum shield, and now for the first time in a long time, I have been sleeping like a baby. The guard is already a little mangled, but at least my teeth are spared for now!

So although it doesn't give me existential joy, it does give me some minor existential/dental relief...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Life Is Beautiful

In my last post I briefly discussed Viktor Frankl and his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, which led him to conclude that even in the midst of so much suffering, there is still meaning to be found in existence. Here's another extract from his book, 'Man's Search For Meaning' (source):
We who lived, in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.
And I asked the questions:
If you're in a concentration camp, isn't it okay to be pissed off at the Nazi's for coming along and taking away your freedoms and very likely your existence too? Is it really 'best' to face such adversities with a smile, or is it okay to be depressed by the fact that 'life is [can be] a piece of shit, and then you die?
So last night I decided to watch a film I haven't seen in many years, called 'Life is Beautiful'. It's the very Chaplinesque story of a lovable, bumbling Jewish waiter who falls in love with a girl and ends up in a concentration camp, with his young son.

As the clip shows, in the face of adversity, Guido was chirpy to the very end and so, represents the kind of person that Frankl was describing.

But after watching 'Life is Beautiful' again, nothing has changed with me. If it were me instead of Frankl or Guido, I would be angry. Angry that others had split me up from my family, were abusing me and my loved ones, and that they had no other plans but to kill us. In those circumstances I feel justified in being angry at other people. Without other humans to make the weapons, the ammunition, to serve as soldiers, or support an inhumane regime, none of it would have happened.

And to be honest, the horrors of the concentration camp are merely the end of a spectrum of interference and abuse by humans on humans, which occurs daily...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Frankl's Search for Meaning

Thanks to a recent comment left by Pablo, I was put onto the work of Viktor Frankl, who, according to Wikipedia:

was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist as well as a Holocaust survivor. Frankl was the founder of logotherapy and Existential Analysis, the "Third Viennese School" of psychotherapy. His book Man's Search for Meaning (first published in 1946) chronicles his experiences as a concentration camp inmate and describes his psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning in all forms of existence, even the most sordid ones, and thus a reason to continue living. He was one of the key figures in existential therapy.
And I was surprised that I had never heard of Frankl or existential therapy before. Here is a small extract from 'Man's Search For Meaning' (source):
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved. In a position of utter desolation, when man cannot express himself in positive action, when his only achievement may consist in enduring his sufferings in the right way — an honorable way — in such a position man can, through loving contemplation of the image he carries of his beloved, achieve fulfillment. For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, "The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory."
What if you don't want to love? Or don't have anyone to love? What about those who reject love as just another of life's illusions? What about those who are bitter, and those who find happiness in other people's suffering? What about those who don't believe in honour?

If you're in a concentration camp, isn't it okay to be pissed off at the Nazi's for coming along and taking away your freedoms and very likely your existence too? Is it really 'best' to face such adversities with a smile, or is it okay to be depressed by the fact that 'life is [can be] a piece of shit, and then you die?

I'm intrigued by Frankl's story, and he looks worthy of further investigation. That being said, his conclusion 'all you need is love' is a familiar one, and I guess not far removed from, everything is pointless, be happy...

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Poincaré's Pleasure

According to Wikipedia, Jules Henri Poincaré:

was one of France's greatest mathematicians and theoretical physicists, and a philosopher of science. Poincaré is often described as a polymath, and in mathematics as 'The Last Universalist', since he excelled in all fields of the discipline as it existed during his lifetime. As a mathematician and physicist, he made many original fundamental contributions to pure and applied mathematics, mathematical physics, and celestial mechanics. He was responsible for formulating the Poincaré conjecture, one of the most famous problems in mathematics.

In his research on the three-body problem, Poincaré became the first person to discover a chaotic deterministic system which laid the foundations of modern chaos theory. He is considered to be one of the founders of the field of topology. Poincaré introduced the modern principle of relativity and was the first to present the Lorentz transformations in their modern symmetrical form. Poincaré discovered the remaining relativistic velocity transformations and recorded them in a letter to Lorentz in 1905. Thus he obtained perfect invariance of all of Maxwell's equations, the final step in the formulation of the theory of special relativity.
And Poincaré apparently came up with this:
The Scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living. . . .

Universes Within Universes

I'm nearing the end of my Cosmos adventure and I again recommend getting hold of a copy, if you've never seen it. Here are a couple of very interesting extracts from the book of the series:

...very likely, the universe has been expanding since the Big Bang, but it is by no means clear that it will continue to expand forever. The expansion may gradually slow, stop and reverse itself. If there is less than a certain critical amount of matter in the universe, the gravitation of the receding galaxies will be insufficient to stop the expansion, and the universe will run away forever. But if there is more matter than we can see - hidden away in black holes, say, or in hot but invisible gas between the galaxies - then the universe will hold together gravitationally and partake of a very Indian succession of cycles, expansion followed by contraction, universe upon universe, Cosmos without end. If we live in such an oscillating universe, then the Big Bang is not the creation of the Cosmos but merely the end of the previous cycle, the destruction of the last incarnation of the Cosmos.

Neither of these modern cosmologies may be altogether to our liking. In one, the universe is created, somehow, ten or twenty billion years ago and expands forever, the galaxies mutually receding until the last one disappears over our cosmic horizon. Then the galactic astronomers are out of business, the stars cool and die, matter itself decays and the universe becomes a thin cold haze of elementary particles. In the other, the oscillating universe, the Cosmos has no beginning and no end, and we are in the midst of an infinite cycle of cosmic deaths and rebirths with no information trickling through the cusps of the oscillation. Nothing of the galaxies, stars, planets, life forms or civilizations evolved in the previous incarnation of the universe oozes into the cusp, flutters past the Big Bang, to be known in our present universe. The fate of the universe in either cosmology may seem a little depressing, but we may take solace in the time scales involved. These events will occupy tens of billions of years, or more. Human beings and our descendants, whoever they might be, can accomplish a great deal in tens of billions of years, before the Cosmos dies.
And slightly further on:
There is an idea - strange, haunting, evocative - one of the most exquisite conjectures in science or religion. It is entirely undemonstrated; it may never be proved.

But it stirs the blood. There is, we are told, an infinite hierarchy of universes, so that an elementary particle, such as an electron, in our universe would, if penetrated, reveal itself to be an entire closed universe. Within it, organized into the local equivalent of galaxies and smaller structures, are an immense number of other, much tinier elementary particles, which are themselves universe at the next level, and so on forever - an infinite downward regression, universes within universes, endlessly. And upward as well. Our familiar universe of galaxies and stars, planets and people, would be a single elementary particle in the next universe up, the first step of another infinite regress.
Much as I love Carl, isn't that just mind-bogglingly absurd?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Cosmos


One of the reasons I've been feeling uninspired this week is because I've been watching Carl Sagan's amazing 13 episode documentary, Cosmos. It really is a fantastic series and I was surprised to learn quite a lot of new information from it (despite being nearly thirty years old).

So why do I find myself uninspired, by one of the most inspiring of our species? Because Carl is just so giddy about it all. He finds wonder and beauty, where I only see a huge, old universe that cares not for our affairs.

I was trying to understand Carl's optimism and found this extract from a biography:
All his life, Carl Sagan was troubled by grand dichotomies—between reason and irrationalism, between wonder and skepticism. The dichotomies clashed within him. He yearned to believe in marvelous things—in flying saucers, in Martians, in glistening civilizations across the Milky Way. Yet reason usually brought him back to Earth. Usually; not always. A visionary dreams of a better world than this one. He refuses to think that modern society and its trappings—money, marriage, children, a nine-to-five career, and obeisance to a waving flag and an inscrutable God—are all there is. Sagan was blinded, but not by these. He was blinded by the sheer glory of the new cosmos that was unveiled by science during the first two decades of his life. This cosmos was an ever-expanding, unbounded wonderland of billions of galaxies. And across the light-years, Sagan dreamed, random molecular jigglings had perhaps spawned creeping, crawling, thinking creatures on alien landscapes bathed in the glow of alien suns.
And I found this sentence from a NY Times review of two biographies of Carl:
Both books delight in the discovery that Sagan smoked bales of marijuana and attributed to the weed vital moments of intellectual inspiration.
So Carl Sagan was another who wanted to get high and sail the stars. In Cosmos he is a happy chappy dreamer which is all well and good, but even Hunter S. Thompson, blew out his brains in the end:
"No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring. I am always bitchy. No Fun — for anybody. 67. You are getting Greedy. Act your old age. Relax — This won't hurt"

Nihilism, Transhumanism & Hedonism

A couple of months ago I was sent a rather cryptic email suggesting that I check out the work of Aubrey de Grey, who (according to his Wikipedia page) is:

a controversial biomedical gerontologist who lives in the city of Cambridge, UK. He is working to expedite the development of a cure for human ageing, a medical goal he refers to as engineered negligible senescence. To this end, he has identified what he concludes are the seven areas of the aging process that need to be addressed medically before this can be done. He has been interviewed in recent years in many news sources, including CBS 60 Minutes, BBC, the New York Times, Fortune Magazine, and Popular Science. His main activities at present are as chairman and chief science officer of the Methuselah Foundation and editor-in-chief of the academic journal Rejuvenation Research.
So he's an interesting fellow, and his website (Sens.org ) has more in-depth information about his plans for curing aging. I also discovered that de Grey was the winner of the 2004 H.G. Wells Award for Outstanding Transhumanist of the Year, which, according to Transhumanism.org:
is conferred annually by the WTA Board of Directors on the person who has made the most outstanding contributions to the transhumanist cause in the previous year.
Given my great admiration for H.G. Wells I was suitably impressed.

This week I was searching around for information on nihilism and discovered a couple of interesting sites, including an entry in the Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy:

In The Dark Side: Thoughts on the Futility of Life (1994), Alan Pratt demonstrates that existential nihilism, in one form or another, has been a part of the Western intellectual tradition from the beginning. The Skeptic Empedocles' observation that "the life of mortals is so mean a thing as to be virtually un-life," for instance, embodies the same kind of extreme pessimism associated with existential nihilism. In antiquity, such profound pessimism may have reached its apex with Hegesis. Because miseries vastly outnumber pleasures, happiness is impossible, the philosopher argues, and subsequently advocates suicide. Centuries later during the Renaissance, William Shakespeare eloquently summarized the existential nihilist's perspective when, in this famous passage near the end of Macbeth, he has Macbeth pour out his disgust for life:

Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

I couldn't really hope to say it better, could I? I next happened upon a site which I had quite a hard time understanding, that asks the question, 'Why does anything exist?' The site (Hedweb.com) is home to UK philosopher David Pearce, who has this to say:

The Hedonistic Imperative outlines how genetic engineering and nanotechnology will abolish suffering in all sentient life.The abolitionist project is hugely ambitious but technically feasible. It is also instrumentally rational and morally urgent. The metabolic pathways of pain and malaise evolved because they served the fitness of our genes in the ancestral environment. They will be replaced by a different sort of neural architecture - a motivational system based on heritable gradients of bliss. States of sublime well-being are destined to become the genetically pre-programmed norm of mental health.It is predicted that the world's last unpleasant experience will be a precisely dateable event.

Two hundred years ago, powerful synthetic pain-killers and surgical anesthetics were unknown. The notion that physical pain could be banished from most people's lives would have seemed absurd. Today most of us in the developed world take its routine absence for granted. The prospect that what we describe as psychological pain, too, could be banished is equally counter-intuitive. The feasibility of its abolition turns its deliberate retention into an issue of social policy and ethical choice.

Recently I posted this paragraph:

eventually a species that solves all of its problems will succumb to an eternal tedium: if death, illness, poverty, need and pain are eventually abolished, won't existence merely progress until everyone just sits around pressing the button to stimulate the electrodes in their brains (because they've heard all the stories, and it's still more fun than anything else)?

And this is what Pearce appears to hope for. A future where everyone is doped up to their eyeballs on happiness pills. Do we commit suicide as the nihilists often seem to conclude, or do we put our efforts into the transhumanist endeavour (and work to eliminate pain, suffering, illness and death) only to end up with a species of happiness junkies? Did humanity really do all it did, so its descendants could be permanently stoned?

Finally, as if to give this story an ending of sorts, according to Wikipedia, David Pearce also set up the World Transhumanist Association (the organisation that gives out the H.G. Wells award, that was given to Aubrey de Grey). And another day goes by, where I appreciate the absurdity of existence, just that little bit more...

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Death of Turing

I'm feeling a little uninspired at the moment, so today I turned once again to the 'The World Treasury of Physics, Astronomy and Mathematics', in which I found this extract from Andrew Hodges' biography of Alan Turing (Alan Turing: The Enigma):

Alan Turing's death came as a shock to those who knew him. It fell into no clear sequence of events. Nothing was explicit - there was no warning, no note of explanation. It seemed an isolated act of self-annihilation. That he was an unhappy, tense person; that he was consulting a psychiatrist and had suffered a blow that would have felled many people - all this was clear. But the trial was two years in the past, the hormone treatment had ended a year before, and he seemed to have risen above it all. There was no simple connection in the minds of those who had seen him in the previous two years. On the contrary, his reaction had been so different from the wilting, disgraced, fearful, hopeless figure expected by fiction and drama, that those who had seen it could hardly believe that he was dead. He was simply "not the type" for suicide. But those who resisted a stereotyped association of the trial in 1952 with the death in 1954 perhaps forgot that suicide did not have to be interpreted in terms of weakness or shame. As Alan had quoted Oscar Wilde in 1941, it could be the brave man that did it with a sword.

The inquest, on 10 June, established that it was suicide. The evidence was perfunctory, not for any irregular reason, but because it was so transparently clear a case. He had been found lying neatly in his bed by Mrs. C- when she came in at five o'clock on Tuesday 8 June (She would normally have been in on the Monday, but it was the Whitsun bank holiday, and she had had a day off.) There was froth round his mouth, and the pathologist who did the post-mortem that evening easily identified the cause of death as cyanide poisoning, and put the time of death as on the Monday night. In the house was a jar of potassium cyanide, and also a jam jar of a cyanide solution. By the side of his bed was half an apple, out of which several bites had been taken. They did not analyse the apple, and so it was never properly established that, as seemed perfectly obvious, the apple had been dipped in the cyanide...

Anyone arguing that it was an accident would have had to admit that it was certainly one of suicidal folly. Alan Turing himself would have been fascinated by the difficulty in drawing a line between accident and suicide, a line defined only by a conception of free will. Interested as he was by the idea of attaching a random element into a computer, a "roulette wheel", to give it the appearance of freedom, there might conceivably have been some Russian roulette aspect to his end. But even if this were so, his body was not one of a man fighting for his life against the suffocation induced by cyanide poisoning. It was that of one resigned to death.

Like Snow White, he ate a poisoned apple, dipped in the witches' brew. But what were the ingredients of the brew? What would a less artificial inquest have made of his last years. It would depend upon the level of description, "not the will of man as such but our presentation of it." To ask what caused his death is like asking what caused the First World War: a pistol shot, the railway timetables, the armament race, or the logic of nationalism could all be held accountable. At one level the atoms were simply moving according to physical law; at other levels there was mystery; at another, a kind of inevitability...