It’s Just a Ride

Posted by Anti Citizen One on November 16th, 2017

Thx to AFP for the pointer to this.

Calvinism and Existentialism

Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 9th, 2011

I was recently considering Calvinism, from an existential viewpoint. Superficially, they could hardly be further apart, given that they disagree as to if our lives have an objective meaning! and also, if such a thing existed, to what extent it would be knowable to us. Calvinism has a number of defining doctrines that are believed to be supported by biblical scripture. The one I find most interesting is “total depravity”… I think of it as “original sin” on steroids. Total depravity states that man is both unable and unwilling to fully love God and to obey him, but are inclined by man’s nature to serve themselves. This, according to Calvinists, is a bad thing.

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil. John 3:19

I was struck that total depravity, at least in it’s narrow interpretation, is actually in agreement with Nietzsche’s doctrine of the will to power. If you don’t already know exactly what Nietzsche means by that, I strongly suggest you abandon your preconceptions now, because the will to power is one of the most misunderstood of Nietzsche’s ideas. The will to power, according to Nietzsche, is the force that determines what is regarded as good and evil (and all values) in the minds of living things. All living things have will to power. We exercise our will to power if we choose to act independently or if we chose to obey another; either way we choose the basis of our actions and that is will to power. The will to power cannot be exercised using rationality alone – in fact rationality is typically not used at all (for one reason, the is-ought problem). Even if we were aware of a god, we still would have to exercise will to power in order to chose to obey or not (or even to recognise the concept “god”, or any other concept, requires a value judgement and WtP). Will to power is driven by psychology, not divine command. For that reason, our actions cannot be entirely guided at the most fundamental level by an external agent (be it god or anything else). This is the essence of total depravity – actions are fundamentally driven by human nature, not god. However Nietzsche strongly approves of the will to power, while Calvinists think total depravity is a negative thing – this contrast could hardly be more stark!

A new will teach I unto men: to choose that path which man hath followed blindly, and to approve of it- and no longer to slink aside from it, like the sick and perishing! Thus Spake Zarathustra

One odd quirk I notice in Calvinism is it’s striving to be spiritually dependant on god as possible, is if that could be increased even by their own doctrine. I do wonder what they think “poor in spirit” exactly entails, from the verse “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to them” (Matthew 5:3). Calvinists seem to regard being “poor in spirit” as having the awareness of ones “spiritual situation” – particularly with regard to one’s own spiritual inadequacy. That is strange because I can be materially, educationally or artistically poor without being aware of it, at least for a time. From the doctrine of total depravity, it would seem everyone is equally poor but the awareness of that may vary from person to person. This confusion between the alleged fact and the awareness of the fact is a case of wishful thinking and loose interpretation of the word “poor”. Poor is certainly a lack of something – it is not necessarily knowledge of that lack.

A more serious objection to Calvinism might be that while they claim to be incapable of making reliable value judgements (particularly moral ones) without god’s intervention, they claim to know not only that the Bible is descriptively accurate, but that it should be used as a prescriptive basis for morality! This itself is a moral judgement. But without scriptural sanctioning, their justification for their self-doubt collapses. Given this, how are we to be reliable judgements of what holy book to follow? For all Calvinist’s know, with their fault moral compass, they are worshipping an entity other than god – possibly the devil. I mean, how would they know? To claim to know if either god or the devil are good or bad, or even to accurately distinguish them at all, is also to claim that they CAN make moral judgements independently of god or the devil, which again contradicts total depravity. (The argument that “god can help to you find god” doesn’t solve the problem because “the devil can help you to find the devil”.)

And many a one who cannot see men’s loftiness, calleth it virtue to see their baseness far too well: thus calleth he his evil eye virtue. Thus Spake Zarathustra

I imagine a problem for Christian existentialists is: assuming there is a god, why should we obey them? Merely from the fact that an entity created you, it doesn’t follow that it should be obeyed. And similarly, if someone is recognised as “King”, it doesn’t necessarily give them power over every aspect of their subjects (particularly post-Magna Carta). Playing semantic games to justify obedience to god simply fails to address the is-ought problem – which I consider to be a foundational part of existentialism: the lack of objective basis for moral actions, particular if this supposed basis is “rational”. Kierkegaard springs to mind.

Anti Citizen One

This is really not the time to pretend we have morals

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 8th, 2010

This is really not the time to pretend we have morals
A quote that probably was not originally intended as existential…



Posted by Anti Citizen One on August 10th, 2010

I am quoting one of my favourite paragraphs from Notes from Underground. The narrator’s point of view, which he calls “underground”, is extreme philosophical scepticism. This has undermined all justification or motivation, so he doubts the value of his own actions. At the same time, he feels himself superior to normal “men of action” and consequently, he has the expectation of achieving something profound. But his scepticism makes this achievement impossible to define, let alone attain. The narrator also tries to state why “underground” is superior, by argument to the consequences. This is a classic argument when defending the “truth” of a belief but is technically a logical fallacy. Just try to search for “what does atheism have to offer” and “what does Christianity” have to offer, on the Internet. Of course, the narrator can’t sustain his argument from his sceptical point of view. He is caught forever between seeking for “truth” and of questioning if “truth” has any value. Anyway, over to Dostoyevsky:

The long and the short of it is, gentlemen, that it is better to do nothing! Better conscious inertia! And so hurrah for underground! Though I have said that I envy the normal man to the last drop of my bile, yet I should not care to be in his place such as he is now (though I shall not cease envying him). No, no; anyway the underground life is more advantageous. There, at any rate, one can … Oh, but even now I am lying! I am lying because I know myself that it is not underground that is better, but something different, quite different, for which I am thirsting, but which I cannot find! Damn underground!

BTW, you can get the audiobook on librivox.


I ♥ Huckabees, The Wire (Series 2 and 3)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 20th, 2010

I have been watching the idiot box (the TV) recently. I saw “I ♥ Huckabees” (aka I Heart Huckabees), a comedy film about characters trying to find existential answers in their lives. I probably need to watch it again because it covers many topics in existentialism, almost too many – it discusses them without dwelling on them. And although many ideas are discussed, the characters barely have time to act on their situation based these ideas. Still, it has many funny moments. This film is philosophically self-conscious and tries very hard to be very existential (jargon is sometimes used to blind and confuse the audience) – this is almost the opposite of movie “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, which does not try hard enough to capture the philosophy of the original work!

Vivian Jaffe: What do you think would happen if you didn’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?
Brad Stand: How am I not myself?
Bernard Jaffe: [musing on the question] How am I not myself?
Vivian Jaffe: [musing] How am I not myself?
Bernard Jaffe: [musing] How… am I not… myself?

Two main existential interpretations are presented: “everything is interconnected” optimism and “the world is full of pain” pessimism. The film doesn’t come to any firm conclusion on existentialism, which as appropriate for the topic, except to hint a middle way between the two extremes is a solution (rather like Aristotle’s golden mean, or Hegel’s synthesis). The topics discussed in the film tend to be late existential ideas (Sartre, Camus), while I have a personal preference for the early existential period (you know: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, etc.). “I ♥ Huckabees” is jargon heavy (almost it enjoys the sounds of the words rather than the just the concepts), while understanding the jargon is actually irrelevant to having an existential approach to life – although I guess the audience probably would not notice unless it was made explicitly clear. “Are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light ones?”

I recently finished “The Wire” series 2 and 3. It is a TV drama revolving around police work and organised crime in contemporary Baltimore – rather like LA Confidential meets Traffic. It is hard to overstate the quality of the series – intellectually and as a story. As William Julius Wilson said:

“[a]lthough The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including [my] own.” Slate

Series 2 was notable in having multiple tragic characters that are worthy of a Shakespeare play. Tragedy as entertainment is a very interesting philosophical area – how does an audience derive pleasure from watching a sympathetic character’s downfall? and what does that tell us about the world? And after all the hard work of the police, are peoples lives any better? is the actual crime rate significantly changed? The Wire can be bleak on occasion! (“Listen carefully”)

Series 3 is more preachy than previous series, but it happens to be advancing an idea I agree with: drug legalisation (or pseudo-legalisation in this case). A senior police officer, approaching retirement with nothing to lose (or so he thinks), attempts a social experiment by tolerating drug dealing within certain limits. In the series, this reduces overall crime in his district, since the police have more time to solve other socially harmful crime while drug dealing is relocated outside occupied neighbourhoods. When the top level police and politicians find out, there is trouble… (If people think this wouldn’t work, remember the end of prohibition.)

Anti Citizen One

Existential Films: The Thin Red Line

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 16th, 2010

Continuing my haphazard series on existential films, there are a few movies that deserve a special mention. One of the foremost in artistic and philosophical scope is Malick’s The Thin Red Line (TTRL). It might be superficially considered a war film, but it is very distinct in its genre. I am hesitant to even label it a war film for that reason. The closest comparison might be made to Apocalypse Now with its examination of good and evil in each person (a la Heart of Darkness). TTRL strikes a different chord – one of life and death, creation and destruction, friendship and estrangement, loss of innocence and the value of individual people. The wandering style of the movie meant it never received much popularity and it was overshadowed by the much less interesting Saving Private Ryan (ok fans of TTRL are still bitter over that!).

The start references the beauty of nature and also the existence of suffering and death. This motif recurs thorough out the film. The camera often cuts in an action scene from fighting to an injured bird or an interesting plant. This links the moral evil in war with the natural evil in nature (and makes it the same thing, twice named).

[First lines] What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?

Aesthetic and moral considerations are shown as independent of life and death, as both are shown to have both ugly and beautiful, good and bad aspects. It reminds me of the beauty of seemingly trivial things and of death, as used in American Beauty. The beauty of death is also central plot point in TTRL, it is first verbally discussed and then directly experienced by a main character.

The value of individuals and organisation of individuals is an important theme in TTRL. The character Witt is shown to be a free spirit but also stating he loves his army company. “They are my people.” His commanding officer, Welsh, is generally a stone cold, pragmatic soldier – and a philosophical collectivist and pessimist. Welsh threatens Witt with punishment for is insubordinate behaviour. But even Welsh has moments of emotion, heroism and intimacy. Through the convoluted plot, these two repeatedly meet and trade a few words from their respective world views. Welsh argues, in a world gone mad, only institutions can make any meaningful difference. Witt’s diametrically opposite view is one man can make a difference, even in war – but personal relationships are also key.

Welsh: In this world, a man, himself – is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.
Witt: Your wrong there, Top. I’ve seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.
Welsh: Well then you’ve seen things I never will.

Welsh: What difference do you think you can make, one man in all this madness?

Welsh: [looking down on grave] Where’s your spark now?

Welsh: They want you dead… or in their lie.

The film contrasts finding existential meaning with the arbitrariness of war and life. Welsh is a material pessimist, but unlike most other pessimists, he does not believe in an afterlife where justice will be done. This makes evil in the world without meaning, from his perspective. And evil is doubly unfair, as it harms people independently of circumstances, rather than as punishment for previous sins. “Every great pain, whether bodily or mental, states what we deserve; for it could not come to us if we did not deserve it.” Schopenhauer. With good and evil events seemingly having no teleological purpose, the characters are forced to independently find meaning to their actions.

Welsh: There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this one, just this rock.

Storm: It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.

TTRL examines themes of loyalty, friendship and love with several relationships being important to character and plot. Welsh, being an anti-individualist, makes this ironic observation:

Witt: Do you ever feel lonely?
Welsh: Only around people.

Witt: Everyone lookin’ for salvation by himself. Each like a coal thrown from the fire.

I have only scratched the surface of this film in this post, but it is worth multiple viewings. I love it and regard it as the greatest existential film (tied with Lost in Translation, at least from among those I have seen).

Anti Citizen One

PS Optical Illusions, seeing isn’t believing…

PPS Another top 10, completely different to my preferences. The Matrix is not really an existential film IMHO (except for about 2 lines, including “the matrix cannot tell you who you are”). And another top 10.

The Brothers Karamazov

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 30th, 2010

I have been recovering from a stomach thing (“the father of all afflictions”). The good news is I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky. It was awesome, but certainly not light reading. I had maintained notes of approximately 50 recurring characters! For this literary genre, the length is second only to War and Peace. I mention this book on this philosophy blog as it is a dense philosophical and psychological work. Apart from the many moral situations faced by the characters, they are not afraid to discuss social, spiritual and philosophical issues in depth. Also, it is not obvious to me the author is pushing a particular agenda, although others have dismissed Dostoevsky as merely pushing orthodox christian propaganda. He seems to make a strong case for and against christianity and moral relativism.

The character Alexey (Alyosha) is perhaps the closest to the author’s ideal man, in this work. Prince Myshkin from this earlier book, The Idiot, is perhaps a higher ideal. But both love humanity and the world. Both are deeply religious and principled. They rush around trying to fix everything and usually, tragically fail (is this the author’s ideal!?). Indeed, Myshkin is driven to insanity by his high principles. Alexey keeps his head but is more human and more passionate than Myshkin. He is after all, the son of this father: the “sensualist” Fyodor Karamazov.

Ivan: “It’s a feature of the Karamazovs, it’s true, that thirst for life regardless of everything; you have it no doubt too, but why is it base?”

Alexey’s brother Ivan Karamazov is an intellectual, a strident moral relativist and possibly a strong atheist. His view is: given the rejection of God and an afterlife, the are no laws to say “love thy neighbour”, therefore “everything is lawful”. This brief expression, rather like a sound bite, borders on a false dichotomy, but Ivan (and the author) is smart enough to not over simplify. He is referring to the existential questions raised by the apparent absence of objective morality. When Ivan is attributed with “everything is lawful”, he said it plainer as “But in my wishes I reserved myself full latitude in the case”. Full latitude in this context includes murder or indeed any other action.

Rakitin: “And did you hear his [Ivan’s] stupid theory just now: if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful?”

Ivan also states his parable of “The Grand Inquisitor”, in which Jesus returns to Earth, but is taken from the people by agents of organised religion and told he is now superfluous considering the current aims of the church. The inquisitor recalls the three temptations of Christ in the wilderness and which are metaphorically faced by the church. The church now chooses differently than Jesus’s choices in the biblical story. This amounts to an accusation of the atheism of organised religion. This chapter has been published separately from the rest of the book.

I was interested to read an expression of the eternal return, which just precedes Nietzsche’s statement in The Gay Science (1880 vs 1882). Although they seem to have expressed the same concept, the way the idea is described is strikingly similar. Dostoevsky has Ivan, driven towards insanity by (possibly misplaced) guilt, hallucinating a devil appearing and talking to him. Nietzsche also writes of a demon appearing at night to foretell the eternal return. Nietzsche appears to have discovered Dostoevsky between 1886 and 1888, based on his sudden gushing praise in Twilight of the Idols. Gypsy Scholar thinks they both may have found the idea in Heine.

Devil to Ivan: “Why, you keep thinking of our present earth! But our present earth may have been repeated a billion times. Why, it’s become extinct, been frozen; cracked, broken to bits, disintegrated into its elements, again ‘the water above the firmament,’ then again a comet, again a sun, again from the sun it becomes earth — and the same sequence may have been repeated endlessly and exactly the same to every detail, most unseemly and insufferably tedious…”

I mention this as the idea is given far higher weight in Nietzsche, being a central theme in Thus Spake Zarathustra. In Karamazov, the world view which Dostoevsky calls by short hand “underground” is touched upon, as Dimitri is faced with the possibility of being sent to Siberia for 20 years (singing hymns to God from underground). This was of course discussed in depth in Notes from Underground, which serves as a sort of preface to his longer masterpieces. I am inclined to think that Smerdyakov is the most underground character in the book, in competition with Rakitin and Ivan, on bad days.

Anti Citizen One

PS The Onion reports on a film adaptation of many peoples experience of the book…

Reaction to The Open Society and Its Enemies, Part 1

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 9th, 2010

I thought I would write a few random thoughts on The Open Society and Its Enemies by Popper. First off: it is excellent. It is a defence of democracy though an analysis of Plato’s The Republic. At times, it seems rather supportive of Socrates and mentions many occasions in which he was liabled by Plato. I am very suspicious of both because they are both philosophical idealists. Popper connects idealism to totalitarianism when applied to political problems (if I understand his point). He also restates the basis of humanitarianism because it was straw manned by Plato. Plato claims that egalitarianism is itself injustice as it treats naturally unequal things as equal – leading to social problems. I was very happy when Popper avoids this and avoids the is-ought problem and the naturalistic fallacy to say that it is individual demands that give the state legitimacy. Popper defines an open society if the government can be changed without recourse to violence. If the individual is forgotten by the state, it ceases to have a claim to justice. The analysis is very critical of Essentialism, Radicalism, Utopianism and supportive of gradual, piecemeal and empirical social change. The ultimate moral responsibility rests on individuals within the state – which is almost an existential basis for a state (strange but true). This interpretation is subtle – when the state is formed to reduce suffering, it is not because the ultimate judgement we make on the world is it is a suffering place. Nietzsche here would warm us of making judgements of that sort! (Fellow suffering is the “deepest abyss”.) But we can take measures as individuals, with our judgement being the “first motion” of ethics, and the judgement that we should help the suffering is contingent (and may change in time). This effect puts the doctors choice to be doctors as the basis of health care. Since their choice lead them to that vocation, it might be expected they have the self motivation to do a good job. If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well. This is the antithesis of our customer and victim centred culture, of course!

I wonder what part 2 will be like? I love the title, also. I love emphasising the second part “… and its ENEMIES….”.

Anti Citizen One

Babe Ruth’s Wager

Posted by on March 25th, 2010

Whilst staring at the stars the other day I entered into a reflection about Pascal’s Wager.

The wager in brief posits that reason is insufficient to prove the existence of God and thus provides no rational justification for belief, but this is a problem about the limits of reason, and not a negation of God. In the absence of reason then Pascal suggests that living one’s life as though God exists is possibly infinetely more rewarding (if said God does turn out to exist) as opposed to infinite recriminations if one lived life as though God didn’t exist only to discover that one is wrong.

There is a plethora of criticism attached to Pascal’s Wager from almost every philosophical position regarding God.

I personally think the Wager is often misunderstood or misinterpreted for specific philosophical ends. However the Wager is by its simplicity open to such attacks.

What is the wager? Well it certainly isn’t an attempt to prove the existence of God. God is merely a probability.

It is however two other things (other than an exercise in probability); firstly it is a proto-existential work (and is increasingly identified as such) for it attacks certainty and celebrates choice, secondly it is an ethical proposition, for if we expand the idea of ‘living as though God exists’ then we are making statements about what type of life ‘God’ wants us to live.

The first element is frequently neglected by Pascal’s critics (more of which in a moment). The second element is the main focus of such criticism.

Without going into any great detail the ethical element of the Wager leaves different people (theist and atheist alike) with a bad taste in their mouths. For even though Pascal was rejecting certainty and the role of reason in proving the existence of God, and even though God was reduced to a conceptual possibility, the promise of reward and its inverse the threat of punishment (the main ethical theme of the wager) is de facto heavily loaded with Judaeo-Christian assumptions about the nature and intention of God. However in his rejection of reason there is no attempt to validate or justify these assumptions.

One attempt may be suggested, an ontomystical justification. i.e. revelation. One may say that the assumptions that one has about God are based on revealed messages either personally recieved or generally read in scripture. This justification however collapses under the weight of cultural relativism, why should one revelation (i.e. Judaeo-Christian) be any more valid or acceptable than another (i.e. Hindu)?

The answer of course is that other than through cultural conditioning, there is no reason why one set of revelations should be more relevant than another.

This reflects another criticism of the Wager, that religious belief is not explicitly a conscious choice.

Yet this does not seem to me to completely kill the wager off. All it does is reflect the limitations of it. It is if you like a closed wager, it only works and its conclusions are only valid if one accepts the various underlying assumptions contained within it and just as importantly if one aspires to achieve the most desirable end result.

This last bit, the desire to achieve the most desirable end result smells a lot like utilitarianism and the felicific calculus. (1.How strong is the pleasure? 2. How long will it last? 3. How likely or unlikely will it occur? 4. How soon? 5. How often? 6. Or not. 7. How many will benefit?)

Dawkins in the God Delusion posited an anti-Pascal wager, which goes as follows “Suppose we grant that there is indeed some small chance that God exists. Nevertheless, it could be said that you will lead a better, fuller life if you bet on his not existing, than if you bet on his existing and therefore squander your precious time on worshipping him, sacrificing to him, fighting and dying for him, etc.”

It does alas bore me, only because it says nothing that Pascal hadnt actually considered himself. Also the anti-wager again is a closed system, its conclusions work best when one accepts certain assumptions, and its most desirable end result (a better fuller life). Needless to say the latter, the most desirable end result relies upon the assumptions being acceptable in order to be desirable. In Dawkin’s case (without doing a deep analysis) one of the assumptive areas is that God-probability is minimal therefore maximal Godcentric-activity is a disproportionate use/waste of time.

I’m not however an enemy of the anti-wager. The anti-wager works just as well as the wager, as does any number of variations on the God-theme. In fact the wager can probably be rewritten and reformulated in any number of ways if one plays around with the necessary assumptions.

And this diversity is rather good. It reflects the existential character of it that is so often ignored.

It was the Utilitarian character of it that struck me most in my early reflections, or rather its Utilitarian and Hedonistic applications. If one rejects Pascal’s necessary assumptions his wager simply doesnt work (nor is it desirable). And it is quite possible a la Dawkins to formulate a different wager that is based upon a different set of ethical values and assumptions and desirable outcomes.

Whatever way it has no bearing upon the existence or non-existence of God (who remains in the wager game simply a probability). It does however belong to the field of ethics and existentialism and as such is probably worth a lot more attention than it gets.

I was originally going to call this post “Bentham’s Wager” to reflect the Hedonistic alternatives (life’s too short, live life to the full; eat, drink and be merry for tommorow we die; be prepared for you do not know when the hour will come, etc.) But I settled upon calling it Babe Ruth’s wager after the bachannalian and iconic Baseball player, who once when asked to expound upon his philosophy of life, and sport, declared:

“I swing big, with everything I’ve got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can.”

Can Anyone Can Really ‘Win’?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on February 8th, 2010

MIAMI—As the Super Bowl captures the country’s attention, excitement over the NFL’s championship game is muted somewhat by the persistent question of whether winning, or losing for that matter, holds any absolute value—a question that has many football fans pondering the meaning of the game itself. The Onion