Tag Archives: philosophy

Joseph Campbell

One of my favorite minds is that of the late Joseph Campbell.  I’ve been reading him a bit lately in an attempt to quiet my mind, as I find his writings have a hypnotic quality.  While I think he got it wrong quite a lot, his ideas were fascinating.  His catch phrase was, “Follow your bliss.”  Campbell explored the nature and history of mythology and the role it plays in the human psyche.  Myth, or religion if you prefer, is often regarded as a primitive thing, unnecessary in today’s world, almost laughable under the microscope of science, and maybe even damaging to the all-consuming notion of progress.  As a romantic, Campbell went so far as to declare myth as necessary and science as mythic.  I dearly love science, but it is difficult to find meaning and fulfillment exclusively in science.  Any sort of attempt to derive meaning from it automatically puts an almost mythical spin on it, or at least a plainly subjective one.  Which gets me to thinking….

It’s a fascinating thought that in the not too distant future, much of what we regard as concrete science today will be rebutted.  History has a funny way of getting science wrong.  Ah, but we think we are immune because now have technology and we apply the scientific method…but even a cursory glance over the history of anatomy, medicine, biology, astronomy, etc. demonstrates that science is continually rewritten, and a backward glimpse into history shows how saturated these fields were with their then-contemporary social ideologies.  Today, a look at the news shows that scientific studies are in a constant cycle of being confirmed and refuted.  Much of the knowledge we can timidly count on being ceaselessly accurate is actually mathematically rooted, and mathematics is very different from science in that it doesn’t really change.  Sure, we still make new mathematical discoveries, but old formulas always stick around.  It’s a far purer field than science.  I love the idea that science reveals our shortcomings as much as our advances.  It shows how really human we are, that we’re constantly evolving, even though it’s rarely in linear fashion.

 Campbell wrote, “With our old mythologically founded taboos  unsettled by our own modern sciences, there is everywhere in the civilized world a rapidly rising incidence of vice and crime, mental disorders, suicides and dope addictions, shattered homes, impudent children, violence, murder, and despair”…his point being that the role of myth is indespensable to humankind because it gives meaning and quality to life, and we’ve lost sight of it a little.  Myth is broad enough that it can embrace art, ceremony, literature, wisdom, dreams, fantasy, poetry, philosophy, and the other things that are the real meat to life.  It lets us know that we are all part of the same human race occupying the same planet, and maybe our differences aren’t so great.  At least, that’s what I get from it.  We’re all in this together.

“Each knight entered the forest at a point he had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no way or path.”  Campbell said this in reference to the legend of King Arthur.  The knights found their way through the forest by questing, which he said is how we all ought to live, making the most of our unique gifts rather than following a path already carved out by others before us.  Follow your bliss…interesting conception.

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Dodging Moral Responsibility?

David Hume said the nature of free will is the “most contentious question of metaphysics.”  I laud him for taking the matter so seriously, but what is it with my friends arguing free will to the bitter end lately?  Everything seems to be an indication to them that free will doesn’t exist to them…literature, movies, art, historical figures (although rarely personal experience).  I don’t understand this.  What is ironic, however, is that these same friends tend to fully support war as a means of perpetuating social “liberty”…the clear political antithesis of determinism.  That’s what drives me nuts about this argument, is that no one lives it out, and people who try to end up breeding enemies by the dozen because their actions can come across as irresponsible or harmful.  I love blogs because no one reads mine, so I don’t always feel the need to argue my claims before reflecting on them, and I’m free to blather and wander off the point as much as I want without having to provide a sound case.  This is one of those times.

Free will arguments are too loopy for me to follow.  I won’t try today…this is merely a chance to blow off steam from having to defend free will to people when I don’t even know what the hell I’m talking about.  There are incompatibilists, like Kant was, who argue that determinism indicates there is no free will.  There are compatibilists, like Hume was, who argue that determinism follows free will.  I’ve never seriously considered the arguments, so I don’t know where I stand, but it doesn’t greatly interest me.  I mostly only care about it to the extent of knowing that some people argue against free will as a way to dodge blame by remorselessly excusing a personal action or that of another.  Arguing against free will is a way to get around moral responsibility.  The topic has a place in philosophical debate, but it can become destructive when it’s tangibly carried out as the logical outcome of incompatibility.  If no one is a free agent, no one is morally responsible for his or her actions.  This seems dodgy to seriously commit to, since the consequences of living out such a philosophy could be messy.  Moral responsibility is an important component of moral human action (duh).  One of my friends, B-, justifies his destructiveness on the basis of determinism, and consequently, the world is a much darker place because of him.  If there is no free will, then what precisely is the external influence that is directing him? 

I can’t figure out why some people question free will so seriously when it seems to remain solely a speculative conjecture rather than an issue that affects which path they take (or are determined to take) in life.  Most people’s actions are rarely hindered, constrained, or forced, and yet they question free will so boldly.  Surely experience can contribute to philosophy alongside abstract theory…?  However, the few areas that seem to personally challenge free will for me probably have no place in a philosophical consideration.  If questioning free will doesn’t change how most people live their lives (this even seems to be as true of theological determinism as it is of logical determinism), then why the obsessive pursuit to find an answer and excuse personal actions under the umbrella of determinism? 

The most tangible opposition I see to free will is addiction.  There is clearly some determinism in nature, as with genes (although most genetic traits assume an on/off state according to environmental influences reaching all the way back to gestation).  With addiction, it truly seems at times like there is zero control over behavior, and that the inability for restraint far surpasses a matter of willpower.  That’s the embodiment of addiction…people can’t stop, no matter how destructive and catastrophic the consequences become.  In fact, the part of the brain responsible for the chemistry of addiction (a primitive little part located high up on the brainstem) is not under voluntary control…hence the extreme difficulty in reprogramming addictive behavior.  Aside from the question of addiction in a free will argument, little things give me trouble on occasion, like waking up from a nightmare when my frontal lobes haven’t turned back on yet…things like what if a person is drugged or tied, what of free will then?  These thoughts give me no trouble when I’m fully awake (unless I’m drugged or tied– kidding, sort of), because I understand them in the context of another person’s free will action.  It’s mostly the question of addiction that gives me trouble around the clock.  Oh, mental illness is another area that raises questions for me…it tends to be brushed aside or explained off in society, but I think people suffering from mental illnesses have quite as much of a right to be taken seriously with regard to philosophy as people who are not.  When my friend T- committed suicide, based on his comments and behavior leading up to that point, I don’t think he felt that he had any free will in the matter.  Those around him would certainly have liked an opportunity to try to persuade him otherwise, but only he really knew how unbearable things got for him.

Most of the time I view the contemplation of free will more like a dental procedure.  I dislike because I don’t want to lose that urgent sense of moral accountability for my behavior.  My behavior is already poor enough as it is; I don’t need others attempting to let me off the hook.

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Pacifism

 Pacifism, the idea that peaceful dealings should govern human interactions, is becoming more and more pivotal in my life.  I first realized I might be a pacifist when I was a teenager.  It wasn’t something I hoped I was or seriously contemplated; I just kept coming back to the idea.  Then, it seemed like an impossible idea to live out, both individually and politically, but it was an intriguing theory.  Pacifism in practice seemed virtually impossible, and would certainly require a tremendous commitment to a wide range of complex moral issues.  This entry isn’t meant to explain, argue, or defend pacifism; it’s just stuff that’s been on my mind all day today.

 

I think humans are capable of living without war, violence, and killing.  Several civilizations have existed peacefully in history (although many of them were wiped out early on by conquering patriarchal societies following the agricultural revolution).  However, the current world is clearly far from a state in which arbitration and compromise will likely solve many domestic or international disputes effectively.

 

Pacifism allows for a much greater variety of stances than many people realize.  Under the umbrella of the philosophy, pacifists can range from unequivocally opposing violence in any circumstance, to allowing for violence when the alternative poses a greater evil, to allowing for just wars any time that basic human rights are violated.  Because pacifism spans such tremendous territory, pacifism as a personal theory is more easily maintained than as a societal theory.

 

As a general rule under pacifism, the deliberate killing, harm, or criminal restraint of a person is unequivocally wrong.  I believe I would choose to risk my life rather than act violently as a means of self-defense.  Kahlil Gibran: “If my survival caused another to perish, then death would be sweeter and more beloved.”  I do not view my life as valuable enough or indispensable enough to ever defend in place of another life, even if that person acts to harm me.   As I see it, the value of life cannot be measured according to a person’s actions, so the life of someone who acts immorally cannot be worth less than the life of an innocent.  However, while I would’t choose to act defensively, I cannot criticize others who use violence as a means of self-defense.  Again, this ties to my belief that it is not possible to judge the value of one life over another, as all human life has intrinsic value that cannot be compromised.  I can only speak for myself on such an issue, and I must allow others to choose for themselves.  So I guess I am not a die-hard pacifist.  However, I disagree with all other forms of active killing (including capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, and other forms of mercy killing*).  A few of my friends carry concealed weapons, which sits uneasily with me.  It seems to be taking self preservation one step closer to aggression, since it is acting from the standpoint of assuming hostile behavior and a willingness to carry out lethal violence. 

 

Confucianism attains that the basis of peaceful communities is an individual calm control over mind and spirit.  Pacifism extends beyond physical dealings.  Emotional and verbal abuse, prejudices, hateful stances, and governmental practices like propaganda and tyranny undermine and violate human dignity.  Pacifism begins on an individual level, but there is no plausible reason it cannot extend to communities and even continents.  While the world is currently far from that point, I do not think war and violence are an intrinsic part of the human condition.  Humans have a right to live peacefully and safely, especially from governmental powers.

 

One pigeonhole I frequently come against when maintaining a pacifistic stance to any degree is that I am somehow indirectly responsible for such events as the Holocaust, since stopping Hitler required risking (and ultimately losing) millions of lives.  Personal pacifism is very different than political and international pacifism.  I would never assert that the Holocaust should have continued because Allied countries had a moral obligation to protect their own citizens.  This is the hardest area of pacifism for me to work out, and I am far from understanding it.  However, I uphold that the intentional loss of any and all civilian lives (millions during WWII) is fundamentally wrong and logistically unnecessary to wage war (a separate issue in its own right).  Aggressive wars are easier to regard as morally wrong, but interventionist wars are more complicated.  Operating from the standpoint that one human life does not have value over another, I cannot weigh the value of American lives over foreign ones.  In interventionist wars intended to protect people from mass destruction or genocidal campaigns, the outcome is more moral than a stance of strict pacifism.  However, the farther removed a motive for war gets from a peaceful ideal, the less justified it becomes.  In this sense, I don’t think my views are much different than much of society.  However, on a personal level, I tend to take a more non-violent stance than most of my peers.  (Yes, I can’t even tolerate the animal industry, and I frequently get called a bleeding heart).

*A note…certain countries cannot successfully detain some criminals without exercising capital punishment.  If those criminals pose a threat to the community, this constitutes a unique and extreme situation.  America operates under law and order, so it is never necessary to apply capital punishment for the enduring safety of the community.  Also, abortion is occasionally required to save the life of the mother, as with ectopic pregnancies (avoiding an abortion in such cases is nonsensical).  Lastly, in caring for the sick or dying, the application of palliative care can inadvertently hasten death (such as with the administration of morphine), although this is vastly different than intentional euthanasia.

Below is an approx. 2:00 clip of some Hiroshima stuff.  It’s not intended to offend, only to be realistic about what tens of thousands of survivors went through. 

 

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