March 25, 2006

Managing Desires Within a Community

Posted in church, non-fiction, philosophy of religion, psychology of religion at 2:37 pm by Jerry

Just finished reading On DesireWhy We Want What We Want by William B. Irvine.

We are awash in desire at virtually every waking moment. If we fall asleep, we temporarily subdue our desires–unless we dream, in which case our dreams will likely be shaped by our desires. p.1 (introduction)

Banish desire from the world, and you get a world of frozen beings who have no reason to live and no reason to die. p.2 (introduction)

Those who know me, know I like to know "Why". I like to know the root cause of things, the first mover, the original initiator, and the ultimate goal. Many of the desires we experience, Irvine explains, are "Instrumental desires, wanted not for their own sake, but so I can fulfill some other desire," what Irvine calls a "Terminal desire." p.57.

In the past, I wanted to know if my beliefs were just human constructions. So I tested my faith by asking myself, "What is the real reason I believe what I believe? What do I want to gain from it?" Eventually I ended up at "just because," wondering if the "just because" was a result of divine intervention. (I still ask myself these questions. I don't trust myself to maintain my faith as a terminal desire.)

I find it interesting that the practical purpose for intellect (creating instrumental desires that will direct a person to the fulfillment of terminal desires) ends when my terminal desire is fulfilled. It reminds me that there is something beyond the rational and irrational.

And then there are the unwanted desires. Irvine devotes two chapters to explaining what kind of religious advice is available to deal with unwanted desires. I found it interesting when he talked about the Amish…

Anyone who wishes to deal with desire must adopt semiarbitrary rules for living. Indeed, if we look at our own lives, we can discover any number of self-imposed, semiarbitrary rules. With respect to alcohol, we might forbid ourselves to drink alone, to drink before sunset, to drink hard liquor, or to drink wine costing more than a certain amount per bottle. With respect to credit cards…. ….with respect to entertainment…. …It is, to be sure, difficult to justify the exact place at which we draw the line with respect to our behavior, but slippery slope reasoning can be invoked to show the importance of drawing some line–even an arbitrary one–in order to prevent a gradual deterioration of our lifestyle. p.218-219 (italics Irvine's, bolded mine)

I bolded the word "our" because that word can include those who need the "semiarbitrary rules" and those who don't. I get frustrated anytime I belong to a group or community that patronizes me or others with "slippery-slope" and "err-on-the-side-of-caution" arguments that others may legitimately need. Of course, if the context is an emotionally sensitive one, I will try to comply for awhile, but if the context is just a matter of idealogies and weak will power trumping my complete lifestyle, I will want my healthy desire for freedom to be met. If not in the group, then it will have to be outside of the group (while still belonging to the group?).

Is it lacking compassion to want to remove myself from the restrictions of others' weaknesses in order to allow my strengths to mature? In Irvine's portrayal of the Amish, if you don't comply to the semiarbitrary rules, you are breaking up the community. Does this mean – when I don't maintain a self-denial of who I am, I'm anti-community?

I admit I often have a problem with authority, that is, people who consider themselves to have authority over me without my consent. But I do value community, that is, a community that values everybody belonging to said community. I know self-sacrifice is often a pre-requisite to belonging to any family/group/community, but there must be a limit. I have a hard time imagining a healthy community wanting its members to be ingenuine or inauthentic. Besides, can a community of ingenuine individuals mature spiritually?


March 21, 2006

God Talk… and Robots!

Posted in philosophy of mind, philosophy of religion, science, theology at 10:33 pm by Jerry

I just read an interesting article defining “Divine Simplicity“. Out of the many statements that caught my eye, here’s one of them:

[God] cannot harbor any unrealized potentialities, and so must be immutable.

I can accept the idea of God’s personality being immutable (like a statue), but should we understand God’s actions to be like a skipping record?

Maybe God doesn’t relate to Him or Herself in new ways, yet still finds Herself fascinating, I don’t know. But when She decided to communicate to new Beings (us) She had yet to create, didn’t She decide to express Herself in new ways? The quote above assumes God has no free will, there is no new act of God. But if God can create a new universe out of nothing, wouldn’t She be able to create new divine actions out of nothing?

Am I implying in my questions above, “free will” is only for agents capable of creating something new out of nothing? Maybe. But that would mean, if not now then later, our actions will become like skipping records. Who could accept that? I’ve heard it said, “Humans need to have ‘free will’ to avoid being mistaken for robots!”

Well, believe it or not, not all determinists view themselves as robots. Robots and humans both have a hand (program) that guide the glove (body), but the human hand is something more than a robot hand.

The difference is – language can be reduced to numbers by humans, but numbers cannot be made into a language by robots. Languages to robots are nothing more than practical tools any third party can witness being used. But to humans, language has meaning that is experienced on a conscious level where no third party can enter – the subjective. (See the philosophical works of John R. Searle)

The subjectivity of the mind is beyond the reach of empiricists. As of yet, no one has been able to measure our thoughts and feelings. The realm of the mind is left (so far) to rationalists and metaphysicists. Thanks to philosophers such as John R. Searle, the current development, and hot topic (philosophy of the mind), has returned to being a large playground for philosophers, including religious philosophers. Why? The subject is moving towards a rationalized perception of the soul.

March 20, 2006

Should I feel better?

Posted in psychology, theodicy at 4:08 pm by Jerry

Should I feel better about my troubles because others are suffering so much more than I do?

There are people in this world that are poorer than me, have less friends, less education. They lose family members to war, crime, differences in beliefs. Their relationships are so much more dysfunctional than mine. They have less experiences of people being gracious, giving, loving, caring, enlightening.

Should I use their greater plight to soften the blow of my own bad experiences?

And what should those, who don’t have worse comparisons, use to make themselves feel better?

When times are hard, and comfort is scarce, should we tap into our competitive nature to avoid being the Ultimate Loser? Should this make us feel better?

I’ve never said anything to people who use this method to make themselves feel better because it’s not exactly context friendly at that moment. Besides, I can’t recall, but I’ve probably used this method myself. Nevertheless, I’ve decided to rant about this pet-peeve of mine.

Some might say, “Are you offering any alternatives, wise guy?”

No. I’m not offering alternatives. We all have to work hard at creating proper theodicies (see Theodicy definition in my post Theodicy – Part I) to meet the complexities of our individual lives. Maybe when we’ve done some work on our own, we can come together and share our responses to the bad things that happen in our lives and question what is proper.

In my last theodicy post on reviewing the book Evil in Modern Thought (Theodicy – Part IIIb) I gave some general thoughts about how I should consider responding to evil. It talks about the challenge of being empathetic. I suppose a sign for me that I’ve failed to truly empathize with others’ suffering is if I objectify their suffering by making their suffering a means to make me feel better about my own suffering.

I’m not saying we can’t make ourselves aware of greater sufferings and learn from the wise methods others use to respond to their sufferings. I’m just challenging the motives/intentions behind our desires to “gain some perspective”.

March 16, 2006

Voltaire’s Essays

Posted in non-fiction, philosophy at 9:29 am by Jerry

Penguin Books has put out a collection of forty "Great Ideas" books. I've purchased up to four of them so far, Miracles and Idolatry by Voltaire being one of them. It's a collection of essays from Voltaire's Dictionnaire Philosophique. Here's a little blurb in the back of Penguin's edition:

Voltaire's short, radical and iconoclastic essays on philosophical ideas from angels to idolatry, miracles to wickedness, make wry observations about human beliefs, and mock hypocrisy and extravagant piety – his call to his fellow men to act with reason and see through the lies they are fed by their leaders has provided inspiration to freethinkers everywhere.

Here's an example from the last essay in this collection, called "Wicked":

..old friend, you who preach that the whole world is born perverse, you warn me that you were born thus, that I must distrust you like a fox or a crocodile. 'Not at all!' you tell me, 'I'm regenerated, I'm neither heretical nor infidel, you can trust me.' p.125.

I love Voltaire's voice! His Candide is one of my top ten favorite books. This collection of his essays are okay, but it's his attitude that remains the drawing factor for me. There's quotable material in this book too…

In Voltaire's essay entitled "Character":

Age weakens the character, it is a tree that produces nothing but a few degenerate fruits, but they are still of the same kind; it gets to be covered with knots and moss, it becomes worm-eaten, but it is still an oak or a pear tree. If we could change our character we would give ourselves one, we would be the masters of nature. Can we give ourselves something? Do we not receive everything? Try to arouse continuous activity in an indolent mass, to freeze with apathy the boiling soul of the impetuous, to inspire a taste for music and poetry into one who lacks taste and an ear: you will no more succeed than if you undertook to give sight to one born blind. We perfect, we mitigate, we hide what nature has placed in us; but we place nothing in ourselves. p.40. (italics mine)

In his essay entitled "Enthusiasm":

How can reason govern enthusiasm? This is because a poet first sketches the structure of his canvas: the reason then holds the brush. But when he proceeds to animate his personages and to endow them with passions, then the imagination kindles, enthusiasm takes over: it is a race horse carried away headlong, but its course has been properly laid out. p.48-49. (italics mine)

One analogy that I've created for myself regarding emotion and reason is Flesh and Bone. Without the skeleton (reason), all you have is a puddle of flesh (emotions). Without the flesh (emotions), all you have is drying up, brittle bone (reason). One should never be without the other. Reason gives emotions structure to live within, and emotions give reason life and movement.

…in the bedroom!

Posted in marriage, soup at 9:28 am by Jerry

It's cliche, I know. But Becky and I always add " the bedroom" at the end of the scripts found in fortune cookies. Only, it's a competition for us. Whoever gets the best script suited for in the bedroom, wins! Yesterday, we went to a great place on Acadia, across from Sherbrooke Community Center (my place of employment). It's called "Asiana Wok." After the two times we've been there, we can still say the food has been fantastic. Their Wonton soup is to die for.

So we opened our fortune cookies and read the scripts…

Becky: "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm…"

Jerry: "Even a small gift could mean so much to someone today…"

I WIN!!!

March 15, 2006

The Da Vinci Code

Posted in fiction, film at 1:47 pm by Jerry

While I sat on a bench near an entrance at work, a fellow employee passing by shot a bunch of questions in a row – “Waiting for your wife to pick you up? How’s marriage? What are you reading?” She looked at the cover, and continued to walk out the door, saying, “Ahhh, the Da Vinci Code. Don’t believe what he is saying!” I called out before the door closed, “Don’t worry!” And then I turned back to the popular work of fiction.

I finished it later on that night. It’s good. Dan Brown really knows how to write chapters with hooks at the end! I’m not necessarily a mystery buff. Riddle after riddle gets a little tiresome for me unless riddles have some deep impact on my life (even then I get tired eventually). But aside from little character development, the plot was ingeniusly woven.

I know there’s controversy over the book. Look in book stores and you’ll find shelves defending the truth Dan Brown twisted, and books on why the Da Vinci Code is so popular. I’ve only seen the covers. That’s enough for me, for now. I suppose Brown asked for the trouble (good publicity?) by starting his book with a page entitled “Fact:” with a following list.

I don’t know if other fiction writers have led their readers to consider parts of their material as fact (unless the genre is historical fiction of which Da Vinci Code is not), but I liked Brown’s premise because I thought it was part of his work of fiction.

Fiction is never without truth. However, truth in fiction is usually an interpretation. If Brown intended the Fact page to lie outside of his work of fiction, I admit, I’d be disappointed. As twisted as it may sound, I like the idea of the author misleading the reader at the beginning of their book.

There’s plenty of material for interpretation in this book. Brown even helps you with your interpretations through his main character, a “Symbologist.” Which led me to ask myself, “Should I trust a fictional character to help me interpret the fictional book itself?” That question alone led me to appreciate Brown’s ingeniousness!

Here’s a short disclaimer on page 171 I used as a response to my question:

A career hazard of symbologists was a tendency to extract hidden meaning from situations that had none.

I love the way Brown just slips that line in the story without drastically sending the reader into disbelief. Here’s a couple of lines (said by various characters) I liked so much, I’ve started quoting one of them in conversation with others…

“The bible did not arrive by fax from heaven.” – p.231
“The problems arise when we begin to believe literally in our own metaphors.” – p.342

And here’s a passage that caught my eye…

[character A said] “Do you really wonder why Catholics are leaving the Church? Look around you, [character B]. People have lost respect. The rigors of faith are gone. The doctrine has become a buffet line. Abstinence, confession, communion, baptism, mass–take your pick–choose whatever combination pleases you and ignore the rest. What kind of spiritual guidance is the Church offering?”

“Third-century laws,” the [character B] said, “cannot be applied to the modern followers of Christ. The rules are not workable in today’s society.”

March 12, 2006

Wicked Witch of the West

Posted in film, literature at 1:59 pm by Jerry

I just finished reading Wicked – The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. Though the novel, intermittently, seemed to have a slightly disjointed, somewhat schizophrenic voice, I applaud any literary exploration of contemporary ethics. Yes, I recommend it. And I can’t wait to see the movie (Wizard of Oz) again.

Tidbits from the introduction and synopsis on the back of the novel reads:

When Dorothy triumphed over the Wicked Witch of the West in L.Frank Baum’s classic tale, we heard only her side of the story. But what about her arch-nemesis, the mysterious Witch? Where did she come from? How did she become so wicked? And what is the true nature of evil?

Wicked is about a land where animals talk and strive to be treated like first-class citizens, Munchkinlanders seek the comfort of middle-class stability… And there is the little green-skinned girl named Elphaba, who will grow up to become the infamous Wicked Witch of the West, a smart, prickly, and misunderstood creature who challenges all our preconceived notions about the nature of good and evil.

What most intrigued me was Maguire’s exploration of the nature of animals and his comparison of them with human beings…

Elphie thought: Such silly things, children–and so embarassing–because they keep changing themselves out of shame, out of a need to be loved or something. While animals are born who they are, accept it, and that is that. They live with greater peace than people do. – p.234.

At a party, Elphaba listens to guests speculate what evil is…

“Evil isn’t a thing, it’s not a person, it’s an attribute like beauty…”

“It’s a power, like a wind…”

“It’s an infection…”

“It’s metaphysical, essentially: the corruptibility of creation–”

“Blame it on the Unnamed God, then.”

“But did the Unnamed God create evil intentionally, or was it just a mistake in creation?”

“It’s not of air and eternity, evil isn’t; it’s of earth; it’s physical, a disjointedness between our bodies and our souls. Evil is inanely corporeal, humans causing one another pain, no more no less–”

“Evil is an act, not an appetite. How many haven’t wanted to slash the throat of some boor across the dining room table? Present company excepted of course. Everyone has the appetite. If you give in to it, it, that act is evil. The appetite is normal.” p.370-371.

I’ll save my own speculations about the root of evil for another day (or just express them through a character I’ve written in my own novel). In the meantime, thank-you Gregory Maguire for creating a good read. It was a pleasure.

March 8, 2006

Did Jesus have “Trickster” characteristics?

Posted in mythology, religion at 5:35 am by Jerry

It’s the Trickster who points out the flaws in our carefully managed societies. He rebels against authority, pokes fun at the overly serious, creates complex schemes and generally plays with the Laws of the Universe. He constantly questions the rules, and causes us to question these same rules. The Trickster appears when a way of thinking becomes outmoded, when old ways need to be changed.

The Trickster is a creator, a joker, a truth teller, a story teller, a transformer. We are most accessible to the gifts of the Trickster when we ourselves are at, or near, boundaries – when we are experiencing transition states. As an archetype, the Trickster, the boundary dweller, finds expression through human imagination and experience.”


March 7, 2006

Searching Among the Ashes

Posted in mythology, poetry at 11:47 am by Jerry

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

We are the clouds that veil the midnight moon;
How restlessly they speed, and gleam, and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly!–yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost forever:

Or like forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings
Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
One mood or modulation like the last.

We rest.–A dream has power to poison sleep;
We rise.–One wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep;
Embrace fond foe, or cast our cares away:

It is the same!–For, be it joy or sorrow,
The path of its departure still is free:
Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow;
Nought may endure but Mutability.

[There's no error here. Both poets from the Romantic period were inspired to write about the same theme, giving their poems the same title.]

by William Wordsworth

From low to high doth dissolution climb,
And sink from high to low, along a scale
Of awful notes, whose concord shall not fail:
A musical but melancholy chime,
Which they can hear who meddle not with crime,
Nor avarice, nor over-anxious care.
Truth fails not; but her outward forms that bear
The longest date do melt like frosty rime,
That in the morning whitened hill and plain
And is no more; drop like the tower sublime
Of yesterday, which royally did wear
His crown of weeds, but could not even sustain
Some casual shout that broke the silent air,
Or the unimaginable touch of Time.

Lately, I've been wanting to wear a pair of magical glasses with one lense that would only reveal that which is unchanging and the other lens revealing that which can change. It would be a curious experience, to look at the living and see if there is anything that doesn't move, their own statue self.

After reading Homer, I thought the Greek gods were created to represent statues that exist beyond the experience of one person. These statues are "Love," "Thunder and Lightning," "Marriage," "Sea/Earthquakes," "War," "Artisans," "Wisdom," "Travel/Thievery," "Home," "Agriculture," "the Sun/Poetry," "the Moon," and "Death."

What remains among the ashes? What can endure the power of Mutability?

March 2, 2006

Samsara and Sisyphus

Posted in mythology, religion at 6:53 am by Jerry

I've struggled for sometime, and will continue to struggle on the understanding of Buddhism's ideal and not-so-ideal worlds. Apparently, out of all the many different reincarnated lives we can live (collectively called "Samsara"), some of those lives are, or will be, in "Hells" and "Heavens." (Note: entering Buddhist Heavens are unique reincarnations because it happens only when you've attained a god-like mastery over your desires and sufferings). But these heavenly lives will not last.

So, to help my journey of learning religions I came up with a working-analogy to study the Buddhist spiritual realms:

If you're familiar with the Greek myth of Sisyphus, you know that Zeus (the highest ranking Greek god) condemned Sisyphus to a 'life' in the underworld (Tartarus, to be exact) of continually pushing a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down again. I haven't read any material that explains why it will not stay on top of the hill, nevertheless Zeus cursed Sisyphus in this manner because Sisyphus tried to cheat Death (among others) twice. It seems, Sisyphus' desire for a longer life was used to torture him.

I was thinking.. the Buddhists' "Samsara" (continous cycle of rebirth) is much like Sisyphus' curse, only, for Buddhists, the boulder is never the same after a trip up the hill (one lifetime). I say the boulder is never the same because of the work of "Karma" (actions creating consequences).

In my analogy, the boulder becoming a smooth sphere represents good karma working, and the boulder becoming flat-sided would represent bad karma working. However, no matter how perfectly round the boulder could become after many trips up the hill (many lifetimes), the boulder rolls back down (reincarnation), and the next trip up the hill will result in exhausting all your good karma.

For Buddhists, all is impermanent. The Buddhist journey in Heaven is not eternal. The boulder – will – eventually – lose its perfection. Therefore, the Buddhist wants to get out of this boulder-pushing cycle – and hence, NIRVANA!

After creating this analogy, the question that comes to my mind is – what does the boulder represent?