From the author of Hardcore Zen and Sit Down and Shut Up, currently on tour with his latest, Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate.
The Secret and Kosmic Narcissism: Stuart Davis on Steve Pavlina on the Virginia Tech Massacre
A blog entry by Stuart Davis that I enjoyed.
The issues of religion and politics are very touchy. People tend to hold their beliefs very dearly, regardless of the extent to which those beliefs shape their day-to-day lives. Many people are strong believers and live their lives accordingly. Many more cling to the fundamentals of one belief system or other that show little or no effects in their lifestyles. I, for one, have swayed back and forth between the two a great deal in my life. I have experienced a great deal of emotional turmoil at times, and have seen myself become rabid and brutal in defense of ideas and values that have very little bearing on my life or choices. But as I have progressed in my spiritual journey, I’ve made a little headway in better living by the principles I claim to value.
One of the principles I’ve struggled with has been tolerance. My predisposition is to look at things from an all-or-nothing standpoint, and tolerance has not eluded that unfriendly gaze. I let myself think for a while that I must let everyone believe whatever ridiculous nonsense they choose to, because that’s their “right.” I later swung to the other extreme and thought that I must take (and give) great pains to “help” others part with their mistaken beliefs, even as my own were constantly growing and changing. I hoped that by unloading my beliefs on passersby, I might be able to nail down my belief system definitively and move on to other things, like living life. I didn’t necessarily need all of the gruesome details, but I wanted desperately to know the basic gist of the big picture. I felt compelled to lash out at all of the unsatisfactory attempts to explain things from society’s religions, especially atheism and popular forms of monotheism. I resented their audacious claims about the world beyond time and space. At the same time, though, I fumbled around desperately for some story about that world that I could buy.
Lately I’ve come to terms with the idea that I will never be certain about what exists beyond this world. My beliefs and understanding about this world and beyond will continue to grow and change as long as I continue to live and breathe. When I accept that, I learn to practice tolerance because the beliefs I ridicule today may be the ones I embrace tomorrow. But I am still much less likely to accept some beliefs than others. As I have explored different ideas, I have learned that some are simply too far-fetched. If these ideas were harmless, then tolerance would be in order. But in many cases, false beliefs do more harm than good. When that’s the case, I should look for opportunities to discuss the ideas and propose alternatives. Tolerance means respecting that each person is going to believe whatever he or she wants to believe. I cannot change what another person believes, but I can exchange ideas and perspectives so that we can each come to new understandings. Everyone is free to believe what they want, but that doesn’t mean that simply believing a thing makes it right.
Having said all of that, I am going to lay out some of my fundamental beliefs. The realm of possibilities in my belief system remains wide, but my experience in life thus far has provided me with a basic framework for understanding the world and my place in it. One of my core beliefs is that the driving force in the Universe leads us toward connectedness, integration, and depth and broadness of experience. Our job is to try to live life as fully as possible, seeking joy and avoiding suffering, and to help others do the same. These ideas aren’t new or original in any sense, and the spirit of these ideas has appeared in some form in countless traditions throughout the history of human thought. But in addition to our constant misinterpretation and misunderstanding of each other, I believe we supplement and distort very basic ideas about life in ways that disconnect us from each other, limit ourselves, inhibit joy and increase suffering.
I call the life force in the Universe love. Many other people call it many other things. A few common names for it in Christianity might include Grace, Holy Spirit, or Jesus Christ. Some would simply call it compassion. I believe that the Universe as a whole is simply an expression of it. Love has no opposite because love is all there is. In our exercise of free will and choice, we often attempt to suppress or subvert love. Our efforts are simply misguided or perverted forms of love. Love is a river and sometimes we try to swim upstream because we think that’s where we’ll find love. But we’re already drowning in it. When we fail to serve as conduits for love, we cause suffering, which creates more opportunities for compassion. We make lots of mistakes. We hurt each other in horrible, shameful ways. People are left to experience dereliction, degradation, isolation, and painful, undignified deaths. But the drive to empathize with each other remains even when we think we don’t want it. Love will prevail because life is nothing more than love experiencing itself in an infinite variety of forms. Consciousness is the sleight-of-hand that convinces us that we are separate from the rest of the Universe, thus allowing us to experience a broader range of suffering and joy in life. We are drops in a river that have convinced ourselves we are separate and distinct from the rest of the flowing water. The spirit that animates us is the same spirit that animates all matter.
In this framework, the closest thing to sinfulness is self-centeredness. This is basically indulgence in the illusion of separateness and failure to participate fully in the joy, suffering, and compassion of life. This is not in opposition to love; it instead is the failure to use all of the love available. Self-centeredness leads people to stumble around blindly when they could move forward into life and embrace and experience love, integration, and connectedness. In addition to limiting our ability to experience a full range of what life and love offer, self-centeredness shuts out the compassion of others, and short-changes people who would otherwise receive love through us. We must constantly work to expand our capacity to give and receive love and compassion. In doing so, we both help others avoid suffering and help them expand their own capacities for love and compassion.
This understanding of life and our role in it doesn’t easily translate into our modern society, which so highly values individualism. But while I believe that individuality is an illusion created by consciousness, it’s still the basis for our interaction with the world. The practice of compassion seeks to break down the artificial distinctions that we create between each other, but corporate capitalism and the American dream rely heavily on them. Our economy is driven by self-interest at the cost of the well-being of others, and failures to exercise love and compassion are greatly rewarded with material wealth. Yet as our world continues to experience problems of incredible magnitude, we continue to have further opportunities to exercise and practice love and compassion with each other. Even if our species faces great calamity, people will continue to have chances to love and care for each other until we draw our final breaths. I’m up to the challenge. Are you?
It’s All about Believing…
at least, the bulk of the new essays I’ve posted is. “This I Believe” was submitted to an NPR segment of the same name, while “Beliefs” was written just to capture or sort out some thoughts that have been accumulating for the last few months. Enjoy!
Freedom: Resolving the Oppositions
In studying Nietzsche’s philosophy, it can be difficult to find a clear understanding of what his views are on freedom. In some areas, he seems to argue strongly against the idea of “free will,” while in other areas he seems to suggest that the heights of human achievement are reached by the “free” spirits. At first glance, Nietzsche might seem to contradict himself on these issues. His views on human freedom, however, are much more complex than to allow for a simple answer of “determinism” or “free will.” Nietzsche views human behavior as being the result of complex relationships between various drives, and to the extent that our drives dictate the courses of our live, we lack “free” will. But to the extent that we are able to moderate the relationships between our drives, we become more “strong” in our will and thus are able to achieve more.
In Beyond Good and Evil, § 21, Nietzsche addresses the issue of free will directly. People who defend the notion of free will want to “bear the whole and sole responsibility for one’s actions.” In order to be so responsible, we must be separated completely not only from all of that which brought us into being, but also from all of that which acts on us in our lives to push us in this direction or that. On the other hand, Nietzsche criticizes what he calls the “unfree” will, “an abuse of cause and effect.” He points out that cause and effect are figured as material things, a cause creating an effect, rather than as simply the conception of the relationships between events. This conception exists in our understanding of the events, though not necessarily in the events themselves. Our understanding of the world in terms of cause and effect is not itself a problem until we begin to believe that these “symbols” exist themselves in nature. When we impose the “mythology” of cause and effect onto the material world, we are stuck with the idea of the “unfree” will. The unfreedom of will is problematic in two very “personal” ways: on one hand it denies a person the glory of his goodness, on the other it allows him to deny responsibility for his failings. Nietzsche does not believe that either of these possibilities is realistic or does any practical good. In answer to the idea of unfree will, Nietzsche points out that “it is only a question of strong and weak wills.”
With what Nietzsche calls the strong and weak wills, the question of human freedom is not whether or not it exists, but to what extent does it exist? Where the human will, the will to power as it expresses itself in an individual, exists strongly, human freedom expresses itself greatly. Where the human will seems to be greatly broken and subverted by exterior forces, it is the weak will, and it might seem to illustrate what Nietzsche would call the “unfree” will. Free will, then, does not exist independently, it is something that must be chosen and embraced by humanity. Where humanity fails to choose and embrace the will to power, human freedom does not exist, but when it is embraced and taken on, such as in Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation, humanity can, and will, be free.
In Beyond Good and Evil, § 26, Nietzsche discusses the relationship of the “superior” human being to the common people, the persons of strong will to the persons of weak. The superior human beings, though they feel compelled to set themselves apart from common humanity, must “go down…above all, ‘go in’.” He suggests that through the process of studying the “average man,” the philosopher will come to a more realistic understanding what it truly means to be free. Though a person with a higher calling than the average man might long to escape humanity—”aspire after a secret citadel where he is set free from the crowd”—in studying average humanity and its bondage are necessary steps toward achieving freedom. The cynics are more honest, he says, than those who would stand on higher moral ground and look upon human drives with disgust, and therefore can lend to the true seeker of knowledge a greater understanding of those human drives. The indignant man wants to deny those drives, is ashamed of humanity’s overall inability to suppress them. Without accepting the reality of these drives of weak will, one can never sublimate them in order to embrace a stronger will, a greater freedom.
Beyond Good and Evil, § 29 discusses those who enjoy more freedom than the average man. “Few are made for independence,” he says, “it is a privilege of the strong.” So much of humanity is blind to its own drives that it cannot possibly overcome those drives and choose freely what it will take from life, what it will make of life. The strong, however, or those who are most insightful into their own spirit and character and the spirit and character of humanity, are able to choose to redefine values, as the lion in the stages of self-transformation. “…he is probably not only strong, but daring to the point of recklessness.” He speaks here of the stages of self-transformation as a labyrinth, and when the strong enter this labyrinth, the average man can no longer sympathize, cannot understand the complexities of what becomes of this strong man. The values of the average man are dictated by the drives to which he is either blind or indifferent, and when a man of strength throws off these values and seeks the values of his own virtue, he leaves the average man behind. This average man does not enjoy the same freedom, but neither does he risk so much as the one who undergoes the process of self-transformation.
Beyond Good and Evil, § 41 addresses the issue of discovering whether or not one is suited for freedom. “One must test oneself,” he begins, “to see whether one is destined for independence and command.” None of us is completely enslaved by our circumstances, but we must judge for ourselves whether or not we will be capable of dictating our own freedom. This is not something that another person can decide for us, and in order to prove this to ourselves, we must be able to let go of all of those things upon which we depend. He provides examples of things that we would let command our will, such as other people, our homeland, or our own values. To attach ourselves to any of these, he suggests, is to sacrifice our independence, to give up our freedom in the name of some other good. “One must know how to conserve oneself: the sternest test of independence.” A person of strong will can choose to give himself prudently to such causes without sacrificing himself wholly, and as a result of this economy, the strong, independent person will retain enough of himself to do as he wills.
In sections 42 through 44, Nietzsche discusses the “new” philosophers, “very free spirits, these philosophers of the future.” He points out that though these philosophers love truth, they do not believe that this is a truth for all. He claims that there can be no common good, as “what can be common has ever but little value.” He criticizes heavily those whom he calls “eloquent and tirelessly scribbling slaves of the democratic taste.” Freedom, liberty, and independence seem to be used synonymously with democracy and equality, and yet Nietzsche points out that to be caught up in this herd, one is about as far from true independence, from “free” will, as one can get. The new philosophers will not be those who find a way for all to achieve freedom, they will simply be those who achieve their own freedom by way of self-transformation and embracing values of their own, not values for all.
Nietzsche points out some of the absurdity of modern thought when he asks, “why atheism today?” (BGE § 53). In the rejection of traditional religion, many modern philosophers are rejecting the idea of free will. The modern philosophers may be anti-Christian, but they are just as religious in their beliefs, Nietzsche suggests. Where once believers in God sacrificed what was precious to His will, modern philos
ophers sacrifice their wills to “stone, stupidity, gravity, fate, nothingness.” Determinism would take the responsibility of living from man just as God would. Where God allows for free will, those who do not follow His will are sinners, and those who do follow His will are “blessed” with his “grace.” Determinism portrays man as a top who spins as he’s been set spinning, without glory or fault in how he spins. Nietzsche does not find either of these scenarios very favorable.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche develops what he calls the stages of self-transformation. Through these three stages, a person can go from being an average human being to becoming an “overman.” In the first stage, called the “camel” stage, a person takes on the burden of the traditional values of his/her culture, perfecting him/herself as a virtuous person by the standards of tradition. Having become disciplined and capable of living values well, the person moves on to what Nietzsche calls the “lion” stage. The lion challenges the values of tradition, (which Nietzsche figures as a dragon), discarding those values that do not serve the person’s higher purpose. The lion replaces these values with practical values that arise from his/her passions to serve that higher purpose. After having thrown off the traditional values and replacing them with his/her own values, the person enters the child stage, where he/she lives as an “over[person],” a carefree value-creator and person of new virtue. The lion stage has also been called the “free-spirit metamorphosis,” and a person who has reached the child stage might also be known as a “free spirit.” These free spirits are the people who have taken not only all that is in them and redirected, but also those who are able to redirect the forces that act on them from without in order to take their lives in a direction of their own choice.
Nietzsche’s arguments in Beyond Good and Evil might often seem to refute the notion of free will, but on closer inspection, we have seen that Nietzsche simply argues that there are stronger and weaker wills. By elevating the notion of cause and effect to a sort of religion, Nietzsche suggests, we arrive at a belief in determinism where no human being is responsible for his life, good or bad, and we detect “in every ‘causal connection’ and ‘psychological necessity’ something of compulsion, exigency, constraint, pressure, unfreedom.” In the ranks of the average men, many are so greatly limited by the outside forces in life, including the pressures of society, culture, custom, religion, family, friends, and even life experiences, that their ability to will from what might be called their own “free” will is nearly non-existent. Ignorance, complacence, indifference, and apathy prevent many people from rising above the forces that shape them in order to make something of themselves. The fact that many people are slaves to all of those forces around them and their own drives to which they are ignorant does not provide us with any argument that all of humanity is constrained by fate or determinism.
This is exactly what Nietzsche hopes to achieve, I think, with his formulation of the stages of self-transformation. The strong and weak wills play themselves out in the world, and in humanity there are those who have the freedom to make their own lives and there are those whose lives are made for them. Nietzsche presents his stages of self-transformation as a set of useful tools for those who would make something of themselves. By mastering one’s own drives and creating values by which to live, a person is able to gain the most strength from all of his inner resources, the drives and passions that make him who he is. When all of the drives are sublimated into one direction, when all of the geese are flying in formation, so to speak, the person has the most strength as an individual and as a human being acting on the world around him. In this way, human freedom does not simply exist, human freedom is something that is available but must be achieved. Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation are a vehicle for achieving this freedom, where otherwise we might be limited to the throes of fate and chance, slaves to our own drives and to the pressures of society.
However, in Beyond Good and Evil § 231, Nietzsche speaks of predetermined aspects of humanity. “But at the bottom of us, ‘right down deep,’ there is, to be sure, something unteachable, a granite stratum of spiritual fate, of predetermined decision and answer to predetermined selected questions.” He asserts that we cannot “relearn” certain things, but only learn them fully, “discover all that is ‘firm and settled’ within”. While this stance on the issue of learning, on the issue of core individual identity, would suggest a certain set of limitations placed on us by fate or God or whomever, this does not necessarily stand as an argument against human freedom. A person is limited by what he is, guided by what he is, directed by what he is, but ultimately has an opportunity, if he is strong, to will with what he has what he may. Nietzsche certainly does not argue for absolute and unlimited human freedom, but he does not argue, either, for a complete lack of human freedom.
Nietzsche’s stance on human freedom seems essentially to be a sort of soft determinism. The hard rules of cause and effect that would support an argument for the fate of hard determinism, as he says, are the symbols of a mythological understanding of the world that should not be mistaken for the world itself. When we transform cause and effect into material things, when we imagine that the relationship between one event and another is absolute and that one necessitates the other, we presume too much. Where it applies to human freedom, the past that gives rise to our present is not immutable, as in one interpretation of the idea of eternal recurrence. What we choose in the moment defines our past as much as our past defines the choices available to us in the present moment. It is an interdependent relationship, and with greater knowledge of ourselves and our resources, we gain greater strength to change who and what we are in both the past and the present.
This seems to be a foundation of the theory of self-transformation. In the camel stage, we perfect our ability to take on the values of tradition in order to learn about value and discipline. Taking on the values of our culture and society does not tie us more greatly to the world around us, does not make us more dependent on the traditional values, so long as we are able to enter the lion stage in which we critically examine those values. It is not our living the values of tradition that defines us when we enter the lion stage; it is how we respond to those values as we challenge what we know that defines us. We challenge the values to determine how they aid or hinder our ability to achieve our higher goals. Our higher goals, which might be what Nietzsche refers to when he speaks of the “granite stratum of spiritual fate,” shape most strongly what we are, and the values that we create to serve the higher goal instruct our virtue in the child stage. If the past was immutable and unchanging, and the doctrine of cause and effect irrefutable, then perhaps society, family, and tradition would dictate our fate completely. According to Nietzsche’s philosophy, the free-spirit metamorphosis is necessary if we are to gain the freedom that is available to humanity.
The aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy that I find the most difficult is simply the formulation of a single, cohesive way of understanding these issues. I see two very important issues at hand: one being the issue of the relationship between human identity or mind or spirit and the physical world or matter and existence, the other being the issue of values and ethical behavior and how a person ought to go about living “well.” I have not so far, in reading Nietzsche’s work, gained a very clear understanding of what his precise views are on human nature. I do not fully understandwhat his views are on the relationship betw
een the consciousness and identity of the individual and the rest of the world. Only with a clear understanding of how he treats that issue do I feel I can fully understand his philosophy on values and ethics.
What are we, as individuals? This is the most important question that I have for Nietzsche. Some philosophers seem to want to define us by the minds with which we think or by the bodies with which we sense. Nietzsche addresses this issue in On the Prejudices of Philosophers, but I do not take from my reading of this section a clear understanding of what he believes. He points out that Shopenhauer believed that the only thing of which we can be completely certain is the will, but then takes great pains to show that even the will is very complex in its modes of existence. Of which part can we be certain? To this question he does not seem to provide an answer. Are each of us as individuals examples of separate and distinct wills, or is existence itself simply a result of the will to exist? Is our consciousness, our sense of identity and separateness from the rest of the world a result of our own personal will, or the result of some indivisible will for many consciousnesses to exist and believe themselves separate and distinct? Are our drives the result of a will to be driven, and does that will to be driven originate in our personal consciousness or is it received from the will of existence? What of our higher purpose? Is that a result of our will to serve some purpose? Or a will of the purpose to be served? As you can see, I have a great deal of questions for Nietzsche with this respect, and while at moments I felt as though I understood his meaning, understood how he would treat these issues, I find myself ultimately at a loss.
Without understanding how Nietzsche treats these issues, I have a difficult time understanding what his premises are for values and ethics. If the basis of his ethics is that each person should discover for him/herself their higher purpose, their own virtue which is separate and distinct from the virtues of others, then it would seem that there can be no hard rules whatsoever for human behavior. I understand this as his basis for a rejection of morality, but I am unclear on what he believes is the source of this higher purpose. Can this innate purpose express itself in some as moralists? Can it express itself in some as murderers? Can we ever know anything with any certainty about anyone else, or about even ourselves?
I appreciate Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation as useful tools for personal growth, but I ultimately feel as though he is at once too hesitant to make claims about what values exist aside from those the “overman” is to create for himself and too eager to criticize the values that have thus far been created or recognized by humanity. Perhaps I am too great a coward to be a “free” spirit, but I believe that values exist to be discovered, not created. I believe that the phenomena of consciousness provides us with the impression that we are separate and distinct entities, when we are in fact simply a part of existence as it experiences itself. Love, or life-energy, is the most fundamental of values as I understand them, and as individuals, our greatest goal should be to act in such a way that we love all of existence to the best of our ability. Love as it expresses itself in human relations would be very much like Nietzschian friendship, and one would do well to love oneself by undergoing something akin to Nietzsche’s stages of self-transformation. I believe that all persons do at any given time the best they know how to do, but we are given opportunities to expand this capacity. Fear is how we react to the belief that we are separate from the rest of existence when we believe that the rest of existence will deprive us of having our needs met, and it is fear that prevents us from expanding our capacity to live well when we are presented with the opportunity. I do not believe in black-and-white morality, right or wrong, I believe only in degrees of lovingness. The more concerned we are with ourselves, the greater our fear and mistrust of the world around us will be, and the more afraid we are, the less loving will our actions be, both towards others and ourselves. I do not believe that we can separate what is good for ourselves from what is good for the rest of existence, as we are not separate from existence, and to the extent that we love, we will enjoy the benefits of love. To the extent that we withhold our love, we will suffer the lack of love, as will the world around us. As Nietzschian friends, we have an obligation to help others to broaden their horizons wherever we are capable to do so, and sometimes the most loving, the friendliest (in the Nietzschian sense, of course), thing we can do for a person is to leave him/her alone.
I do not know how best to resolve these beliefs with those we’ve encountered in Nietzsche’s work. It seems that Nietzsche believes strongly in the limitations that individuality imposes upon human beings, and the freedom of will would be one such area. Every individual, he seems to say, is a complex interweaving of physical, social, and psychological phenomena. He seems to call individuals to explore themselves for some defining attribute or purpose so as to gain an understanding of what to do with life. Through the stages of self-transformation, a person will ideally take the best of his society and the best of himself to synthesize some worthwhile cause to call his virtue, at which he will point all of his strength. The strongest individuals will be the most free from hindrances to this goal, though they will not necessarily be any more free in terms of choosing who they get to be. The weaker individuals will be constrained in their efforts to exert power over the world around them, and will often squander their lives chasing whichever wild goose seems to be most within reach at any given moment. In this understanding of things, Nietzsche’s view on freedom would seem to be something akin to the idea that the most strongly-willed people will be most free to achieve greatness, and those who are a confusion of weaker drives will not achieve much.
Becoming the Overman: Nietzsche’s Path to Transformation
Nietzsche’s transformation includes three main stages: the camel stage of putting into traditional values into action; the lion stage of challenging and overcoming useless or obsolete values and replacing those with new values; and the child stage of living the new values. Those who are not already capable of effectively handling their daily lives cannot hope to transform themselves by these processes. Those who have fully developed and become competent individuals, though, can take on these processes of transformation to rise above the standard level of functioning and become creators. When a person is ready to take on such transformation, they are ready to enter the camel stage.
The camel stage is presumably called such because it is a long journey. When a person has developed into an adult, they may have already begun this process of taking on the values of their culture and society. In the camel stage, a person works towards perfecting their ability to live according to these values and take them on as a sort of second nature. Living deliberately and making informed, conscious decisions, as opposed to simply reacting and responding to the world thoughtlessly or carelessly, develops a person such that they are disciplined and able to apply themselves to life. When the person has learned to rely on self-discipline to live intentionally, they become ready to challenge their traditional values in the lion stage of development.
The lion is a fierce and wild animal capable of taking on opponents as fierce and dangerous. The lion challenges what Nietzsche calls the dragon, traditional values. Having lived by these values, the person can make decisions about what is practical and reasonable and what aids or inhibits their ability to live as they want to. This can be called the “free-spirit metamorphosis” because a self-sufficient person who has successfully embodied traditional values has reached a point at which they are able to view values critically and make informed choices about what should be valued. Persons who are not able to embody traditional values do not have a point of reference from which they can discern value. In the free-spirit metamorphosis, a person can revaluate, discarding values that are useless or obsolete and replacing those with values that serve the person’s drives more fully. When the person has parted with these useless values and created those that take him/her to where he/she wants to go, they are read to move on to the child stage.
The child stage is a time when the person is able to enjoy the fruit of their labor, so to speak. Having become disciplined and having created values that serve their higher purpose, the person can live by their values in a “lighthearted, carefree” way. The child is innocent and joyful and does not have to exert great effort to live by the values that have become second nature. The child is not concerned with social norms and is not reactive to the world around him/her, but rather acts on the world outside according to his/her values, embodying his/her virtue and following his/her own drives.
In order to make serious strides in my own character transformation, I believe that the most important tasks at hand include developing a mastery of traditional values and skills and gaining more extensive knowledge of the world around me and the people in it. I especially need to develop my skills in maintaining honest and open relations with my friends and acquaintances and my skills in fostering a sense of respect and compassion for the people around me. I also need to further my education, formal and otherwise, and further develop my level of self-discipline as it pertains to time management and the willingness to complete the tasks for which I am responsible.
My need to develop my skills in dealing with the people around me is apparent because I tend to withhold pertinent information about myself when dealing with my closest friends, specifically information about thoughts and feelings that bother me. In doing this, I fail to process my feelings, and those feelings eventually affect my attitude and my willingness to act reasonably towards the people and situations in my life. In most cases where I’ve acted on ideas that I’ve hidden from others, I’ve found undesirable consequences that might’ve been avoided if I’d have been willing to hear another perspective on the problems and proposed solutions. Similarly, failure to discuss my feelings with my friends leaves me with only my own perspective on the events and situations in my life, and gaining multiple perspectives usually inspires me to overcome pain. Finally, in being open and honest with my friends, I allow them to know me as I really am. Knowing me more fully, they are able to make better decisions regarding our friendship and be more effective as friends. My honesty and openness may also inspire them to be more open and honest about themselves, which would help me to know better how to treat them as friends. So far, in my relationships, I have become skilled in being very open and direct in my communications, but I still fall back on a failure to communicate at sensitive times, some of the times when I most need to discuss things. To this end, I could use improvement.
Another area of my personal relationships that could improve would be my willingness to treat the people in my life with respect and compassion. In most of my affairs, I am both able and willing to behave respectfully and compassionately, but this tends to fall apart in my relationships with members of the opposite sex. I view members of the opposite sex not by looking at who they are, but by looking at what they can do for me. I especially find myself interested in those who can provide relief from my emotional and physical intimacy needs. I am not, however, usually willing to put the effort into developing genuine emotional connections with my partners, though, and so I rely on physical intimacy to meet all of my intimacy needs. Coupled with my failure to meet emotional intimacy needs through friendship when I keep my friends at a distance, my reliance solely on physical intimacy with women would have me be something of a nymphomaniac, provided I could find a willing partner without all that effort of meeting and getting to know people. Essentially, I have reached a point at which I understand that my relation to the opposite sex is poorly founded, and I need to revaluate my approach to such relations with a greater emphasis on respect and appreciation and less emphasis on the needs that I have that I refuse to address myself. I also need to work on taking care of my own needs, wherever possible.
Finally, I need to further my education and master such disciplines as time-management and prioritization. My formal education is following a somewhat prescribed progression, but I can always pursue knowledge on my own time, as well. This would require better time management and prioritization, however. My natural tendency is toward entropy of the spirit. When I’m not at work or school, I usually spend my time “hanging out” with friends, “killing time.” It would do me well to work towards approaching work and school in such a way that I effectively manage my time in order to allow myself more of my own time. It would also do me well to strengthen my willingness to work towards personal goals of self-improvement in my own time rather than simply “killing time” until some entity outside of myself prompts me to work. By changing these things about myself, I would put myself in place to make a transition from Nietzsche’s camel stage of development into the lion stage, in which I could throw off those values that fail to serve my drive and create new values.
Two of the most significant obstacles to my own self-transformation include the fear of failure and established habits that lead in wrong directions. When I think of the ways that I could seek my highest love and the means to embody that in my life, I usually imagine that the process would require a lot of effort and a long-term commitment, so I become incredibly anxious about what a waste it would be to put a great deal of time and effort into the process only to fail. As I said in my answer to question two, I have a tendency to hang out with friends and kill time when I’m not at work or doing something for school. I often find that I want to simply “relax” when I’m not otherwise occupied, not devoting myself to my transformation when I have time of my own. The fact that I operate this way seems to have causes both in my laziness and in my ill-directed habits.
So my fear of failure is one of the most prominent obstacles in my self-transformation, but I believe that it draws force from other problems, as well. Part of my fear of failure includes the uncertainty of what exactly my highest drive is, or should be. I tend to fear that I will misinterpret my drives and make a significant investment of time and effort to something that doesn’t “pan out.” I also worry about whether or not I will properly understand the best ways to act on those drives such that I am actually moving in the right direction. There have been times in my past that I have felt that I was doing work to better incorporate my values into my living, only to discover later that I’d actually reinforced undesirable values. There have also been times when I felt as though certain values should be among my priorities, only to discover later that the values were void of some of the qualities I’d attributed to them. This seems to fit into the scheme of Nietzschian development, though, now that I think about it. I embraced values that I took from the society and culture around me and found them to be unfulfilling, and so had to replace them with something else. I do not claim to be a value-creator yet, but I’ve simply been searching so far, I suppose, for a set of traditional values that complement each other rather than work against each other. The idea that a failure to try is worse than an actual failure makes great sense and takes a lot of wind out of the “fear of failure” sail. There is much to be gained, I’m sure, in the processes of becoming and learning, regardless of whether or not I learn all that I hope to or become what I hope to be. If I learn nothing else, to learn that I do not want to become a certain type of person, or cannot become that person, will be valuable in narrowing my search for exactly whom I should become.
The other significant roadblock in my self-transformation is my set of established habits. As I said before, my natural tendency seems to be toward entropy of the spirit, and I often want to rest on my laurels and enjoy the fruits around me that seem fun. It’s a bit difficult to speak to this issue greatly in the midst of what is perhaps the busiest semester of my life, but in slower times I often find myself wasting time in front of a television or taking unnecessary naps. I smoke cigarettes and drink coffee excessively, and oftentimes both of those habits lend themselves well to doing nothing else other than sitting with friends, “talking shit.” I have established a very strong aversion to such pointless habits as drinking alcohol and engaging in other recreational drug use through membership in a 12-step fellowship. My involvement with that fellowship prompts me to work toward character development or self-transformation to a certain extent, but it only succeeds in doing so to the extent that I’m willing to allow it. One area in which I struggle to find willingness is the drive to enjoy meaningless relationships with members of the opposite sex. In times when I could be putting effort into doing the work that fulfills me, such as reading and writing or enjoying meaningful friendships, I find myself longing greatly to find “victims” or “volunteers” among the fairer sex. Though my exploits in this area are not so involved that I could consider myself promiscuous, the amount of time and energy that I devote are sufficient that I consider myself somewhat lecherous.
The solutions that I try to implement in these areas are very similar to those that I implemented in overcoming my willingness to subject myself to the pointlessness of drug use. I try to devote myself increasingly to meaningful endeavors, including school (15 semester hours), employment (~35 hours a week), 12-step recovery meeting attendance (at least 1 or 2 weekly), service to the recovery fellowship (positions such as Area Service Committee Vice Chair and Regional Service Conference Treasurer), sponsorship of newer members in the recovery community, building a website, writing poetry and stories, and, of course, seeking meaningful Platonic/Nietzschian friendships. Though being so busy helps greatly in my refrain from promiscuity, I have wondered about your suggestion of “Putting yourself in situations where you know those habits will lead to failure or pain is one way [to break a habit].” I wonder if I might be more willing to recognize the emptiness of sex without friendship if I were to engage in a streak of promiscuity that left me feeling hollow. The other solution that I’ve had in mind is to try to learn how to enjoy friendships with members of the opposite sex and intimate relationships that incorporate deep, honest communication. Whatever.
Designing a school for Nietzschian self-transformation would probably be somewhat costly. A great deal of effort would also be required to establish the institution, but the return on the initial investment would be great. Some of the main concerns of the institution would be recruitment, setting, educational programming, methods of instruction, and methods of evaluation.
One of the main concerns that I would have with a small, private school would be the issue of recruitment. With a limited enrollment, which might prove to be optimal for the type of school, it would be very important to ensure that all of the students in attendance merit the right to attend. Student in this facility should be intelligent and skilled in a well-rounded manner. It would be imprudent to recruit students who might require disproportionate levels of instruction and guidance, and students in this institution should be able to walk themselves through the stages of development to ensure that they are being true to their own drives and passions. The students will likely have demonstrated in their performance in traditional education a high level of ability, but it is also important that their abilities and discipline extend beyond scholastic endeavors. They might be able to demonstrate through their achievements with some religion or personal accomplishments both a willingness to advance themselves and a certain sense of disillusionment or dissatisfaction with tradition. Self-motivation would be important, as it would be pointless to attempt to instruct students without a drive to “go under and overcome.” If applicants can demonstrate that they fit those requirements, they might make worthwhile candidates for attendance at this school.
If I had unlimited resources to create private college, I would definitely situate that institution somewhere in Montana. I think that there is something about the majestic nature of wide-open space and freedom from the abundance of industry and technology that helps to inspire human creativity and passion. Nietzsche illustrated the value of solitude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra through Zarathustra’s trips to the mountain. Not only would my students experience some seclusion from society outside of the school, they would have the opportunity to experience solitude from the other students in private, self-contained rooms. Should they find it necessary to isolate themselves in their rooms for indefinite periods of time, they would have the opportunity to do so. The rooms would be like small apartments, but they would also have a cafeteria available for social and practical purposes. Social relations between the students would be encouraged, and the students would be encouraged to approach these relations with a great deal of integrity andauthenticity so as to gain the most from their relations with other seekers. They would also be encouraged to take both group and solitary outings into the wilderness for camping and other recreation so as to cultivate a relationship with the natural world around them and gain an understanding of what they believe about the world and their existence in it. Instructors would be nearly indistinguishable from students in their presence at the institution, living in the same quarters and following the same general guidelines and suggestions. Instructors would likely continue to grow through continued transformation of their own in their roles as such.
Educational programming in this institution would vary greatly from traditional forms. Instructors would hold a variety of seminars and group discussions on topics of their own choosing and scheduled according to convenience during the days of the week. Students would be able to choose from a weekly agenda the various seminars and discussion groups they wish to attend, and they would be free to attend as many or as few as they wish. Among the topics of discussion and presentation would be issues of traditional values, philosophical and theological treatises, contemporary social issues, and various topics in psychology, sociology, and history. Students with an interest in preparing presentations of their own could do so under the auspices of willing instructors with their consent.
The issues of educational programming and methods of instruction blend together to a certain extent. The instructors in the institution would work personally with students, and each instructor’s “case-load” should be as small as possible, perhaps as many as two or three students. Instructors would work very closely with the students as mentors, counselors, and leaders-by-example. The instructors would work with their respective students to explore issues of innate values and personal development. Students would be encouraged to meet with their instructors at least once weekly for at least an hour, but could make arrangements with the instructor to meet as often as necessary. Students would be encouraged also to work closely with other students wherever possible or desirable in aiding each others’ progress through Nietzschian friendship.
The final issue is that of evaluation. Given that the each student’s instructor would have the greatest understanding of the student’s particular standing and development in terms of character, the instructor and the student should work closely together in determining what sorts of accomplishments should be made before the student can begin to consider the idea of requesting formal evaluation. Formal evaluations would not attempt to “grade” the students’ performance, but rather would attempt simply to gauge whether or not the student has made sufficient progress to “graduate.” The student and the instructor would work together to give a formal presentation to a committee of other instructors, and perhaps non-participatory student witnesses, and the committee would discuss the presentation with the student and instructor, propose questions and commentary, and finally come to a decision by way of secret ballot as to whether or not they believe the student has made sufficient progress to complete their role as a student. Students might be encouraged to venture out into the world for anywhere from one to five years to apply their transformation to practical living and then return to the school to become instructors. Because it would do much good for the graduates to return to the school as instructors, it’s likely that the employment span of any given instructor might be relatively brief, i.e. five or ten years, perhaps. Past instructors might retain a status on a sort of council or board to help the school with administrative and decision-making issues so that any person who has been a part of the institution would remain such for as long as is practical and fitting.
This school would not do a great deal to provide the capitalist machine with gears or axles, but it would do a great deal to provide humanity with worthwhile human beings. Though perhaps not an express purpose of this institution, it would be nice to think that by aiding people in overcoming themselves, this institution might instigate dramatic changes in the surrounding society and culture, taking power from the materialist, commercial forces that guide us and reminding people to be humans before they die. On the other hand, there’s the risk that this institution would result in the severe depression and disillusionment of its students who see what an ugly society we’ve created for ourselves thus far. No matter how hopeless the project of overthrowing social conventions might seem, though, Nietzsche (and Schroeder) seem to argue that failure is preferable than a failure to try, so if the institution prompts students to try to make serious changes, it will certainly be worthwhile to at least that end.
When a person embraces true atheism, they embrace the belief that there is no God, and therefore the belief that anyone who believes in the existence of any sort of God must be wrong. It is important to discuss the issue of defining God, because for all of the possible things that God could be that do not exist—for example: if God is defined as a seven-headed beast on the dark side of the moon who controls the Universe, then I would certainly agree that God does not exist—there are an infinite number of ways to define a God that does exist.
My own understanding of God begins simply with the fact that I live and breathe from one day to the next, and the life that I have was not something that I could give to myself. As a result of the fact that my parents were living, even though they had not created themselves, I was born. None of us has anything without the life that came to us, a gift from fate, chance, random accident, destiny, the Universe, or “God, the life-giver.” And just saying that “God gave me this life” does not necessarily imply that God is intelligent or all-powerful or the God of Abraham or the Father of Jesus or some Great Judge who will condemn me for doing anything that makes the Pope feel uncomfortable or any of that stuff. It means simply this: it is a function of the universe to provide life to all that lives, whether it is strictly through physics and chemistry or by the results of plans made by some Grand Architect who exists outside of the universe (space and time). I live and breathe and eat food and fuck and have an intellect and a capacity for reason, and all of these things came to me from somewhere else, and I have at my disposal the entire world around me with which I can make choices about what I will do with my life. I personally define God as the agent responsible for giving me all that I have, including this Universe to play in, so NO ONE can say that God does not exist, because my existence verifies the fact that something caused me to exist (that infinite string of events leading up to my birth and the existence of the universe in which it occurred). I believe that God is loving and caring because love, which can be defined as simply ‘life energy’ came to me and made me a living being, and care, e.g. air to breathe and food to eat, etc., also are here as a result of those same processes that are responsible for my presence in the first place. Again, I reiterate that this has nothing to do with whether or not God is conscious or aware of what he has done or whether or not this thing was planned or impromptu, but the world and this Universe exist and I in it, so I am supremely confident in saying that I have been loved (given life) and cared for (given the means to sustain life) by some agent or force, even if that is simply chance or fate, and I call that agent or force God, and regardless of what I call it, it still exists.
Finally, to take it a little bit further, all that love (life energy—not only given to me in the form of the fact that I am alive and continue to live, but also in the willingness to live that comes to me when I enjoy life, often the result of other people around me loving me, agents carrying out God’s will that I be loved) and all that care (all those things that keep me going from one day to the next) are things that I can choose to deny or reject. Food is constantly available to me and I can choose to not do the work to get it, and other people can make the choice to prevent me from getting it. In both cases, God’s care is present but I am not receiving it as a result of human choices. All humans are capable of being agents of God’s will (i.e. loving and caring) or of being hindrances to God’s will (esp. self-centeredness that stands in the way of our ability to love ourselves and/or others)…we have the choice to either aid the Universe in giving and nurturing life or to prevent life from blooming and destroy life. The rest of life in the Universe seems to be capable of acting only in life-supporting courses of action, and even where some life is destroyed and/or harmed, it only serves the purpose of continuing life in some other form (lion kills deer, eats dear, lives for another day). Humans have the capacity to choose a course of action that harms/destroys life without adding to life in some other form. I firmly believe that it is a function of all life to be loving and caring and act in ways that add to life and allow it to flourish, and even humans have that drive (conscience), but we are also capable of subverting that drive in self-interest, thinking that by taking and hoarding and preventing life from flourishing we can control it and make it ours and not ever lose it. This is insanity—we fret about whether or not we will get what we need to survive in a world where more than we could ever need is available, but our desires tell us that we need more and we must escape the cycle of death and rebirth and gain immortality by assuming control of a universe that abhors internal controls. We are incredibly foolish in our failure to realize that we will die just as all other forms of life do, and our death will provide life elsewhere in the universe, both through our organic bodies that will decompose and rejoin the cycle of life and through the repercussions of our loving actions that have the potential to encourage (human) life to flourish long after we’ve gone, if we’ve done things during our time that are such testaments to love and care and good will. Our foolishness prevents us from recognizing that our absurd fear of dying (more self-centeredness: we try to place conditions on God’s love for us—”if God really loved me, he wouldn’t let me die/suffer”) cause much more death and destruction than any natural chain of events ever has. Our souls, I believe, are the agents that make the choice between love and self-centeredness, thus to follow a spiritual path allows us to live in loving, caring ways, instead of the self-centered ways marked by fear and anxiety that were more responsible for any pain and suffering we endured than God would’ve ever laid at our feet. The difference between gratitude and entitlement become clear: those with gratitude are content to be able to live another day and take advantage of all that they have; those who feel a sense of entitlement experience anger and resentment about the fact that they must die someday and because they do not have all that they want. When I am grateful for what I have, I am able to use it responsibly, but when I feel that I am entitled to have my desires met, I become chained to my desires and I suffer greatly.
I believe that we all must make an effort to understand the universe if we are going to try to live well in it. The words “God” and “Higher Power” are simply very convenient ways to convey the idea that the universe provides us with love and care. Our failure to recognize this fact is often the source of pain, suffering, and sorrow. Not everyone has to find a “God” to believe in. But if we all would make a point of recognizing that the universe supplies us with all that we need until we pass on, we will be much more capable of accepting the love and care that the universe provides. We will be much better at using that love and care responsibly to nourish ourselves, spiritually and materially. We will be much more willing to pass the rest along and use our lives to add to the strength of the love and care in the universe, instead of detracting from it.
An Ethics Final
The notion that morality is merely a matter of opinion is profoundly false and trivially true. This notion is profoundly false because it suggests that there is no right or wrong answer to moral questions, there is only “the answer that is right for you, and the answer that is right for me.” In this class, we took great pains to arrive at the realization that no matter what various answers any two people might arrive at, 2+2 will still equal 4. Regardless people’s opinions on any matter, right, wrong, or indifferent, moral questions have a definite answer that is unchanging and not affected by how people feel about it. The trivial truth about this notion is that any stance that we are to take on any subject will ultimately be an opinion, regardless how true or false we might be. All we have are opinions, so our thoughts on morality will necessarily be a matter of opinion. That does not mean that our opinions are not subject to being right or wrong, it simply means that they are opinions, and even as such, no one is right to hold the wrong opinion.
Plato claims that one never knowingly and deliberately does what one judges to be the morally inferior alternative. I believe that Plato was correct in this assessment. In my own experience, I can say that there are a great number of things in my life that I have done of which I am not very proud, but I don’t think that I have ever done anything that I sincerely believed at the time to be wrong. There are things that I have done (stealing my mother’s vehicle to take joy-rides well before I even saw a driver’s license on the distant horizon, stealing all varieties of random and relatively worthless merchandise from shops in the mall and discount shopping centers) knowing very well that a lot of people would consider it wrong or that I might be punished for being caught, but even then I managed to justify my actions such that I felt comfortable with my own choices. Since that time, I have matured slightly, but the things that I do wrong now I still believe are right. I believe that any time that we are presented with a moral question about our own behavior, we will work to do one of two things: evaluate the situation realistically and arrive at an informed decision as to what is right to do, or decide what we want to do and then manufacture reasons that our choice is justified. I have a firm belief in the human ability to believe in whatever we need to believe in so that we can do what we want to do, but I also believe that if a person is honest enough about the reality of a situation, they will do the right thing. People can be mistaken in their values, including overemphasizing the value of doing what they want (“that is my right“) relative to other factors in making a moral decision, but they cannot escape from the need to believe that they are justified in doing what they do.
I disagree with the idea that there are no moral truths because of some sort of difference between facts and values. Wherever values exist they can be described as being factual, and so if something must be factual in order to be “truth,” then values can be true.
Camille Paglia believes that the two sexes are at war with each other, that men seek to dominate women through aggression and that women seek to dominate men with sexuality. She seems to argue that women who choose to use their sexuality in their dealings with men should not be surprised if men respond with aggression, especially if those women do not want to engage in sexual activity after displaying their sexuality. She maintains that women who engage in games with the opposite sex should be held accountable for the part they played should they be forced to engage in sexual relations against their will. She claims that the men who force these women to engage in sexual relations are not right in doing so, but they are not alone in the responsibility for what happens. I think that her analysis of the situation is accurate: for anyone to forcibly engage in sexual relations with another is wrong, yet it is reckless and irresponsible to flaunt sexuality in the company of persons of questionable moral character and an unquestionable desire to fornicate, particularly if one desires not to fornicate.
The idea that, because people differ in their beliefs and judgments regarding morality and because people are “not likely” to change their beliefs and judgments, there cannot be a universal moral code that applies to all people is absurd. The existence or lack of existence of a universal moral code is in no way dependant upon the beliefs of people. If a universal moral code exists, then there are a lot of people who are wrong in the their moral beliefs and judgments. If no code exists, and what a person believes and what they value dictates their morality, then all of these people could be correct in their moral judgments even if they differ. A universal moral code cannot be proven impossible simply because people differ in their beliefs and judgments, because they can differ in those regardless of whether or not the moral code exists.
It is possible that we act on principle and remain consequentialists. True principles have their basis in reason, and when the reason (consequences, ill motives) is removed, then the principles no longer apply to the given situation. Those who maintain their belief in principles that might seem to be of no consequence in particular situations do so only when they believe that there are, in fact, consequences at stake. A decision to face the Dalton gang, for example, would have as one of its consequences a man who goes to his grave having died for what he believed in, while the consequences had he not faced the gang would’ve been a man who lived on with the suspicion in his heart that he was a coward who refused to stand up to the bullies simply because he feared harm. If the only consequences that we are allowed to recognize are material and physical instances of harm or well-being, then a decision to stand up to the Dalton gang would be a decision that completely disregarded all possible consequences. If we are allowed to admit, though, that the harm done to character in the instance of refusing to stand for what is right (i.e. it is not right for the Dalton gang to be allowed free reign over the people of Dodge City) is greater than the harm done when one loses his life performing his duty. Clearly, a man who decides to face the gang would rather die a man of character than live as a coward, both are very real consequences that have been weighed against each other. If the consequences that apply to character are not real, though, then this man has acted simply as a matter of principle with no care for the (real) consequences. I reject the notion that the only consequences that are real are those that affect the physical and material well-being of those persons involved, and therefore I cannot believe in such notions as “harmless wrongdoing” or “principled behavior.” The consequences at stake in both “harmless” wrongdoing and principled behavior are not those that affect the physical and material well-being of those involved, but rather the emotional, psychological, and spiritual well-being (well-being of character) of those involved.
When moral disagreements occur, they can occur between stupid and inept people as well as capable and qualified people. A moral disagreement can occur when two people disagree about something and do not possess the wherewithal to prove each other wrong or prove their own arguments right. Their disagreement is in no way dependant upon whether or not they understand why they disagree or are able to formulate arguments supporting their belief.
William K. Frankena said, “To say that a developed moral agent must make up his or her own mind as to what is right…is not to say that one can make a course of action right by merely deciding on it.” The first portion of this statement seems to
build on Plato’s notion that a moral agent will not knowingly act in a way that he or she determines to be morally inferior. Moral agents are subject to gain information about moral judgments from outside of themselves, often including the opinions others and society at large. Regardless the factors that affect that moral agent’s personal belief or judgment, the moral agent’s own belief and judgment will ultimately determine how that agent will act. This is the first portion of Frankena’s statement—a developed moral agent must make up his or her own mind as to what is right—in order for that moral agent to choose a course of action that he or she believes to be right. The second portion of his statement allows for the fact that developed moral agents are fallible in their moral judgments. Developed moral agents will necessarily believe that the course of action they choose is right, but this does not mean that they will choose the right course of action. Developed moral agents are capable of being mistaken, and so in spite of the fact that they might sincerely believe that they choose the proper course of action, they are capable of choosing the wrong one.
Joseph Raz’s assertion that “morality judges the interest of all impartially” still permits the possibility that, in doing what is morally right, one’s self-interest is also served. It does not follow from his assertions that it can never be in one’s self-interest to be moral, simply because there can be instances in which the service of one’s self-interest coincides with what is morally right.
Though it can be said that, “by increasing a pain-riddled patient’s morphine in order to shorten the patient’s life,” a person has taken steps that both produce desirable results (the alleviation of the patient’s pain) and display morally wrong intent (the intent to kill the patient). The presence of ill motives and intent to do harm is more morally significant than the benefit to the patient of pain relief as the patient dies. The agent cannot be described as having done the “right” thing for the wrong reasons, as the wrong reasons make the action wrong.
Suttle’s position on duty to die and its implications on others is basically that it is morally permissible for some other people to do what will bring about or expedites a duty-bound person’s death when the duty-bound person fails to fulfill that duty. I agree that, when a person is morally obligated to do something and cannot or will not do it, then others have a moral right, and perhaps sometimes an obligation, to step in and assist the duty-bound person in fulfilling that duty.
The Moral Domain is said to be composed of “any thought, judgment, or action that either advances, sustains, or retards the well-being of the agent and/or others.” Any thoughts, actions, or judgments that do not advance, sustain, or retard the well-being of the agent and/or others falls outside of the Moral Domain. If “harmless wrongdoings” are to be understood as actions that do not advance, sustain, or retard the well-being of the agent and/or others, they would necessarily fall outside of the Moral Domain, and are therefore neither right nor wrong, and should therefore be considered “harmless doings.” If they must be included in the Moral Domain, though, perhaps it should be recognized that, if they are in fact “wrongdoings,” then they do, in fact, retard the well-being of the agent and/or others. In the instance of voyeurism, for example, a person who violates the privacy of another does very real harm to his/her own well-being.
The most significant change in my thinking due to this course has been my understanding of moral relativism. At times in my past I have sincerely believed that moral judgments for me can differ from others’ moral judgments for themselves without either sets of moral judgments being wrong. As a result of this course, I realize that when disagreements about the world in general occur, at least one of the persons involved in the disagreement must be wrong.
I found all of the topics we discussed in this class equally interesting. All of the topics were based on ethics, which I find to be very interesting.
This course would be much improved if only I had attended class more in the latter portion of the semester, and if we had spent less time waiting for some of the more stubborn or ignorant persons in the class to grasp the concepts we discussed so that we could move on to discuss the topics in greater depth.
I think that the most common misunderstanding of ethics would probably have to be that of moral relativism. People often rightly subscribe to the notion that it is mean and/or irresponsible to dismiss the practices of other cultures as wrong simply because they are different when we do not fully understand them, but people mistakenly take this further to believe that we cannot understand or make morally sound judgments of other cultures or even other people within our own culture. Moral relativism seems to prevent a lot of progress and advancement in the world today because so many people are so careful about passing judgment on the actions or beliefs of others. In a more critical world, perhaps we would be free of many of the stupid and ignorant ideas that still remain because no one wants to tell people how things really are.
Black Holes and the End of Time
I can remember that, as a child, I had a great interest in the cosmos. I was fascinated with ideas about what might be out there, and I read books and articles about the universe and its wonders. Ever since then, my desire to know more about the nature of reality has done much to shape my thoughts and actions. Until I enrolled in Astronomy 102 for this fall semester, however, I’d not done much at all to gain any deeper understanding of the cosmos since I’d been just a child. Studying the universe in this class has provided me with a reawakened interest in the cosmos, but I’ve found myself a bit disillusioned by what I’ve learned thus far. The most significant source of frustration for me in my search for an understanding of the universe has been a book that I began to read a few weeks into this semester, The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking. Ideas in this book from the uncertainty principle to singularities and brane worlds seem to be at once contradictory and counterintuitive. If you please, Mr. Hawking, allow me to retort.
Hawking begins this book with a chapter describing the theory of relativity and its history, including much about Albert Einstein and his life. I’ve always considered Einstein one of my personal heroes, and I’m able to agree with much of what Hawking states in this first chapter. My first quarrels with Hawking’s ideas, however, began as I read this chapter. Hawking claims that time comes to an end in black holes because gravity forces matter in a black hole to form a singularity, a body with no size and infinite mass. His claim is that time stands still because it becomes impossible to predict the behavior of matter once it has been “trapped” by a black hole. My first complaint is that it seems incredibly self-centered to believe that because we cannot know what happens to matter in a black hole, the information about that matter is lost to the universe. The idea of a singularity is awfully far-fetched, as it seems obvious that for a thing to have any mass at all, it must have some size, however small it may be. In the past, it was believed that the atom was the smallest unit of matter, then atomic particles, and now quarks. It seems to me that it would be entirely possible that there is, in fact, a small, indivisible unit of matter that forms the body of a black hole, and the phenomenon of black holes would be explained by the gravity that results from the infinitely dense and small configuration of these units (whether they be quarks or some smaller units).
Beyond the supposition that we might have some definitive answer to the question of what the basic building block of the universe is, I think that it is absurd to say that because we cannot predict what might become of matter in a black hole, time for that matter ceases to exist. The ideas that come from the general theory of relativity with regard to time as a universal phenomenon versus time for “any freely moving observer” seems to be shortsighted. The speed at which certain processes occur changes based on the circumstances surrounding their occurrence, resulting in experiences that would seem to indicate differing rates in the passage of time. The idea of universal time seems to be rather easily discarded by Hawking and many others based simply on the fact that certain things happen at different rates due to the effects of gravity, etc. Time has forever been a relative system of quantification, a means of comparing the duration of one process’s occurrence to another’s, but the inherent problems is that there is no process in the universe that occurs at a constant rate with the exception, possibly, of light travel. Our most accurate means of measuring the passage of time, however, are still based on processes whose rates of occurrence still are not perfectly constant, such as atomic decay and quartz movement. The fact that time under varying circumstances is experienced differently, whether by human consciousness or by atomic decay, says nothing to the fact that, throughout the universe, time is constant in that all things must pass through a consecutive order of events, regardless of the number of events that might occur for any other thing in the universe.
A related argument is that of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This principle suggests that the more accurately one can predict the position of a particle, the less accurately one can predict its speed, or vice versa. Einstein was reported to have said, in answer to this idea, that “God does not play dice.” Hawking, among others, argues that God must, in fact, play dice, as particles obviously cannot have a specific speed and position. It is also suggested that, because it cannot be known what path a particle may take from one position to another, it is reasonable to assume that particles will travel through all possible paths from one position to another. This assertion results in all sorts of absurd ideas including those of imaginary time and multiple histories that make sense if one believes that particles don’t behave well. Simply because the speed and position of a given particle cannot be known with certainty does not mean that the given particle does not have a definite speed and position. I am in complete agreement with Einstein on this issue; I do not believe that God plays dice. Reality is not dependent on whether or not math can predict something; reality is dependent only on itself. A particle’s existence alone is enough to prove that it will have a position and speed relative to the rest of the universe, regardless of whether or not that position and/or speed can ever be known within that universe. Mathematics provides tools for understanding the universe, but, just as in every other situation, flawed equations will produce flawed results. The universe will occur as it will, and simply because we cannot know exactly how it has occurred does not mean that it occurred in every possible way.
Having written all of that, it occurs to me that this paper lacks structure. I don’t really know that I’ve followed any specific line of thought, but rather I’ve simply vented all of my discontent at having read Hawking’s book. That in mind, I must say that I have learned much from this process. I have learned a great deal about what modern theories state about the universe and reality, and I have learned that those modern theories do not seem to be able to provide me with the types of answers for which I am looking. I am a philosopher, and these men are scientists and mathematicians. I am not concerned with quantitative aspects of truth; I am concerned with the qualitative principles that describe those quantitative aspects. Learning more about what is known and believed has led me to a deeper understanding of what I know and believe for myself, which is important enough for me, even if it is not in agreement with what modern thinkers believe. Studying in this astronomy class has allowed me an opportunity to know at least one thing with some certainty: I shall not pursue an understanding of the universe or reality through the medium of science any more than I shall look to science to tell me what my favorite color is.