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February 8th, 2008


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06:35 pm - Philosophical Musings
I recently read an interesting work of philosophy (Indra's Postmodern Net) if any of you are interested). The piece is fascinating, and the discussions of the interconnectedness of all things and the relation between that idea and causality is well worth reading. However, on a purely personal level, I remain puzzled. Reading that piece once again pointed up the fundamental problem that I have with most philosophy, and especially with both Buddhism and everything derived from Existentialism and almost all of the various branches of western philosophy that followed it. All of these various worldviews assume that within all humans there is some fundamental and inherent discontent. The "human condition" is assumed to be unhappy. This can be phrased as "existence is suffering", or is discussions of the inherently meaningless nature of existence and the difficulty of coming to terms with this.

I find these and all related ideas to be utterly baffling on a personal level. I have always assumed that my base state should be both happy and content and when it isn't, I change my circumstances so that it is. I enjoy existence and see no reason to do otherwise.

Also as andrewducker one said about me, "John doesn't fundamentally believe in the human condition, as he thinks that it's socially constructed" (a statement that I'm quite pleased with), and I strongly suspect that this belief of mine is closely related to my lack of understanding of and thus my lack of interest in philosophy. I consider every sort of inherent "natural" or "human" limitation as a problem to be solved or an inefficiencies that needs to be fixed, not as things to be accepted or reflected upon (except as is needed to solve them). I most especially don't see such limitations, be they our limited intelligence, our limited lifespans, or the fact that some of us are far wealthier or happier than others, to be things we need to come to terms with, accept, or learn to feel good about. From my PoV, if problems exist, they exist to be solved.

More than that, from my PoV the meaning of life and of existence in general has always been patently obvious – It never occurred to me that life had any intrinsic meaning, the idea that it might has not only always seemed utterly ridiculous to me, I find any suggestion that it might to be horrifying in the sense that it means that people do not get to choose their own destinies. Instead, its always seemed obvious (to me at least) that the only meaning our lives have is whatever meaning we each individually choose to give it. I find this idea to be simultaneously perfectly natural and completely liberating and joyful.

While I recognize this as an unfair characterization, to me most philosophy and a great deal of the older religions seems to revolve around being unhappy and either (at best) learning to be happy or (far more commonly) learning to accept being unhappy. As someone who has never had any trouble being happy, I see little personal need for the first (but also recognize that others might), but I find the second to be horrifying and deeply wrong.
Current Mood: contemplativecontemplative

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From:used_songs
Date:February 9th, 2008 03:14 am (UTC)
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I wonder if this has something to do with the notion that sadness and seriousness are inherently more thoughtful and important? I know my students are always asking why the "great books" we read are all so depressing.

It sounds as though you and I have similar views of the meaning of life - probably why I could never manage to convince myself to believe in any religions.
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From:heron61
Date:February 9th, 2008 05:17 am (UTC)
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I wonder if this has something to do with the notion that sadness and seriousness are inherently more thoughtful and important?

Almost certainly, as I mention in this response, I think much of this has to do with how utterly horrid life was for pretty much everyone in the pre-industrial past. I think this produced a general despair that lead to most important works being serious downers. Today, there is absolutely no reason for general despair (at least for non-impoverished inhabitants of the first world), but the connection between sadness and depth or "truth" remains. I'd love to see that connection broken, and would be rather pleased to see many of the supposedly great works of literature be recognized as fascinating, but ultimately archaic curiosities, as opposed to works that actually have some bearing on our lives now.
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From:used_songs
Date:February 9th, 2008 02:51 pm (UTC)
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All I know is that I've derived a lot more pleasure and utility from the works of P G Wodehouse than from any number of deeply philosophical and dark tomes.
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 9th, 2008 03:40 am (UTC)
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I don't think it's quite fair to say philosophy emphasizes unhappiness. What is basic to the human being is discontent; if we did not possess it, we would not eat when hungry. But I am completely comfortable saying that you can be discontent and happy, or perhaps more strongly, to say that satiation is a part of happiness. I'd call my viewpoint organismic. We are born, we live, we die, in between we try to make the most of our existence. After that is the great mystery, but most importantly from my viewpoint, the end of any of our mortal concerns. It's impossible for me to worry about death from an existential standpoint, because I view my personhood as ending with death. I worry about death basically in the realm of thinking about the future. I have a personal desire to leave some kind of future legacy, but I have no illusions that anything I do will ultimately survive aeons of dust, cold and quiet.
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From:rjgrady
Date:February 9th, 2008 03:51 am (UTC)
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Hm, addendum. Comment worth responding to:

I consider every sort of inherent "natural" or "human" limitation as a problem to be solved or an inefficiencies that needs to be fixed,

I view human existence as something along the lines of a tea ceremony. The goal is perfection, the object is pleasure contained in elegance, the method is discipline. Thus, to me, death has ceremonial value. It is valuable to me to extend the duration of life and the clarity of consciousness to their maximum potential. Death should not be approached in haste, or avoided in such a way as to cause disgrace.

I am not a fervent transhumanist. I have an appetite for the simple, the metabolic, the consumptory, the dignified. But I have no fear of becoming a stranger to what used to be call human. The past grows ever smaller. I enjoy the vanity of imagining my descendents and my legacy for the next few centuries, but I have no illusions that a millenium from now, it will be necessary or perhaps even common to create new humans through sexual reproduction. But I love to watch children grow in the womb, become born, life, change. I see the miracle of the stars in human life. In our elements, I can feel the history of exploding supernovae.

Just as you are contented with a future vision of humanity basically staying on Earth, I am contented with human beings continuing to live physical, mortal, "limited" lives. Perhaps one day, conception and birth will be an aesthetic appreciated by the same sorts that nowadays create their own bread, make their own pots, or perform live music.

A million years from now, there will not be humanity, but thousands of races that were human. And while the winners of the evolutionary game are unlikely to be unhappy, they are very likely to be discontent. Curiosity I would describe as the urge to metabolize knowledge.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:February 9th, 2008 03:43 am (UTC)
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"While I recognize this as an unfair characterization, to me most philosophy and a great deal of the older religions seems to revolve around being unhappy and either (at best) learning to be happy or (far more commonly) learning to accept being unhappy. As someone who has never had any trouble being happy, I see little personal need for the first (but also recognize that others might), but I find the second to be horrifying and deeply wrong."

Or, even more horrid than the second, how about the idea that suffering is a blessing, a means of extirpation to work off our sins? That seemed to have reached its zenith during the Middle Ages and is still popular among fundies of all sects.

I think that idea will someday be recognized as the product of mental illness.


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From:xi_o_teaz
Date:February 9th, 2008 04:26 am (UTC)

From an ex-Philosophy Major who has sworn it off...

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...Buddhism and everything derived from Existentialism and almost all of the various branches of western philosophy that followed it. All of these various worldviews assume that within all humans there is some fundamental and inherent discontent.

Existentialism is largely a reAction to the despair many in the West feel after realizing for themselves that there is no longer a need for "God" to be in the picture. That's my one sentence summary that isn't entirely accurate, but there you go just the same.

Buddhism often gets interpreted by Westerners as being "pessimistic", but this is largely due to its association with the negativity that has infused into Western Existentialism. Buddhism is actually quite an upbeat religion as I've understood it. It states that in Life there exists Suffering. Not that it's constant or all-pervasive, but it definitely exists. We all get sick, we all grow old, and we all die. Period. These events--if none else--cause Suffering in every human being that has ever lived. Buddhism, via its 4 Noble Truths & 8-fold Path are the "cure" for this Suffering.

And if you were an uneducated farmer with a large family 500 years ago (where someone in your family was always ill, etc.), wouldn't you want a way to relieve your (and your family's) Suffering?

I have always assumed that my base state should be both happy and content and when it isn't, I change my circumstances so that it is. I enjoy existence and see no reason to do otherwise.

This is one of the Buddhists' goals. The Dalai Lama, in particular, wrote one of my favorite books of all time on it, "The Art of Happiness". I have only come to put "Happyness" as one of my highest Goals since digging myself out of a several year Depression.

I consider every sort of inherent "natural" or "human" limitation as a problem to be solved or an inefficiencies that needs to be fixed, not as things to be accepted or reflected upon (except as is needed to solve them).

It's the old "Acceptance or Change" dichotomy. The Path of Acceptance is the Path of the Mystic. By your words (and my terminology here), you have chosen the Path of the Mage who Changes the external world. Ultimately, it just comes down to Change, be it Internal (Acceptance) or External ("Change").

While I recognize this as an unfair characterization, to me most philosophy and a great deal of the older religions seems to revolve around being unhappy and either (at best) learning to be happy or (far more commonly) learning to accept being unhappy. As someone who has never had any trouble being happy, I see little personal need for the first (but also recognize that others might), but I find the second to be horrifying and deeply wrong.

Which is why religion doesn't appeal to everyone. Lots of people seem to do just fine without religion or refined Techniques for being Happy. Lots of other people can't even glimpse these states with these Techniques, and those are the people who need it most.

This may be a very Ignorant thing of me to say, but perhaps that is because living conditions in the USA in 2008--whilst far from perfect--are perhaps infinitely better than the vast majority of human beings have ever experienced. If we accept that living conditions in the majority of the world for most human history were much more rife with disease, sickness, suffering, & death, it may not seem so unusual for a system purporting to relieve said problems via any and all means necessary.

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From:heron61
Date:February 9th, 2008 05:08 am (UTC)

Re: From an ex-Philosophy Major who has sworn it off...

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Existentialism is largely a reAction to the despair many in the West feel after realizing for themselves that there is no longer a need for "God" to be in the picture.

Very true, and I've always been utterly baffled at how not believing in god could possibly be in any way way troubling - it seems vastly liberating. I have no desire to believe in any sort of divine overlord, I don't want an overlord, and am not inclined to trust people who do.

And if you were an uneducated farmer with a large family 500 years ago (where someone in your family was always ill, etc.), wouldn't you want a way to relieve your (and your family's) Suffering?

Indeed, which is why I consider luddites and people who are nostalgic about the past to be either (in most cases that I've seen) fools or (in some cases) people whose priorities utterly baffle me. After studying both ancient and pre-modern history in depth, my firm conclusion is that the pre-industrial past pretty much universally sucked for everyone, it clearly sucked more for the poor than the rich, but I'd rather have my life now than the life of the wealthiest person alive 500 years ago.

By your words (and my terminology here), you have chosen the Path of the Mage who Changes the external world.

Most definitely. I tend to use very similar terminology.

Which is why religion doesn't appeal to everyone.

Which is (at least as a large-scale choice) a fairly recent phenomenon, and I think is definitely related to the fact that life (at least for non-impoverished first world residents) no longer largely sucks. It is equally my conviction that the reasons that fundys in the US so strongly oppose the adoption of a euro-socialist social safety net in the US, is that it would kill off most religiosity, just like it has in most of western europe.

If we accept that living conditions in the majority of the world for most human history were much more rife with disease, sickness, suffering, & death, it may not seem so unusual for a system purporting to relieve said problems via any and all means necessary.

I'll completely agree with this assessment, which to me at least means that almost all philosophy and also almost all (or perhaps all) pre-modern religions are (in the first world at least) needless and obselete archaisms that may be interesting from an academic and historical PoV, but aren't of any more use to us than buggy whips or coal scuttles.
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From:xi_o_teaz
Date:February 9th, 2008 05:59 am (UTC)

Re: From an ex-Philosophy Major who has sworn it off...

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To be fair, I think that Western Philosophy is basically a focus to give an overactive, spinning, cracked out 3rd Circuit brain in those who are so afflicted (as I used to be). If it were in any way connected to Religion, it would be considered the "Way of Reasoned Inquiry", and you find this Path in many Religious Traditions. This is the whole "using the Mind to surpass itself", entering the REALm of Paradox, etc.

I think Western Philosophy's biggest problem is its severance from Religion. I say this because they both try and find Meaning in Life. The East doesn't have this separation, and is one of the reasons why they have less problems with their philosophical ponderings. And the connection with Religion is exactly why Western Philosophers denigrate Eastern Philosophy so much.
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From:siderea
Date:February 9th, 2008 04:29 am (UTC)
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How can you not "believe in" something you grant is socially constructed? That's like not believing in bridges because they're built.
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From:heron61
Date:February 9th, 2008 04:50 am (UTC)
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Ah, I see what you mean. A far clearer way of saying this is that I do not believe there is anything remotely resembling a uniform or singular human condition.

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