Letting Go of God

Dreyfus said that a lot of students in his class on Heidegger (which is standing room only and students waiting outside the door to get in) would fail because Heidegger is incredibly difficult to understand.  Dreyfus warned students that if they don’t have the appropriate philosophical background, they need to consider dropping the class. My philosophical background is limited so chances are, I’d fail his class.  But if I was in school at Berkeley and if there were no Berkeley Webcasts and I had the opportunity to take his class, I’d willingly take the risk.

My interest in philosophy is far more spiritual than it is academic. In specific, I am interested in philosophical ideas that merge with mysticism. Since the Enlightenment, academia has lumped mysticism in with magic, sorcery, the supernatural and all things irrational. This is tragic because authentic mysticism is intensely rational. Yes, it is also considered to be transrational, but the stepping stone to transrational thought is rational thought, not irrational thought.  (For the sake of clarification, let’s use A.R. Lacey’s definition of rationalism – any view appealing to reason as a source of knowledge or justification.)

Mysticism flirts with atheism because transrational thought makes the question of the existence of God irrelevant.  Mysticism is NOT an atheism, however, because it does not make the claim that God does not exist.  However you answer the question, “Does God eixst?” (“yes, there is a God” or “there is no God”) – merely points back to the question itself. Both atheists and theists have made the question important by insisting they hold the “right” answer, but mystics consider the question irrelevant because mysticism is rational. “God” (by any other name) cannot be known rationally, therefore any rational question about God does not apply. It makes no sense, whatsoever, to insist upon the existence or non-existence of God. If you insist upon God’s existence, then you are likely more into supernaturalism and magic than authentic mysticism. If you insist upon the non-existence of God, then chances are you worship rationalism in the same way theists worship a supernatural God. True, a lot of mystics use the term “God” to point to what is transrational.  But this does not mean they “believe” in the term.

In The Gay Science, Nietzsche presents the parable of the madman. This madman runs out into the crowds exclaiming “God is dead”, and realizes he is at least 300 years too early for people to understand what he is saying.  Nietzsche isn’t telling theists that God is dead.  He’s telling secularists that God is dead.  Atheists may claim there is no God, but they don’t yet understand that God is dead.  Human beings created an ideology based on a concept that served humanity relatively well for centuries. The concept is no longer viable because we killed it. As Dreyfus said in his Existentialism in Film and Literature class, we abstracted it out of existence.  And as long as we believe in objective truth, we are forced to maintain a belief in a God’s eye view that has the ability to see this truth. Secularists haven’t eliminated God.  On the contrary. The role of God has been reassigned to science and reason. God is dead, but we don’t yet know it.

Many years ago, I was having great difficulty maintaining a belief in God and went through a frantic journey trying to find out everything I could about the history of the Bible, the history of the Jews, the history of Rome, Greece, and whatever else I thought might help. Through a series of connections with various bloggers (mostly on the now defunct Vox), I ended up at Hubert Dreyfus’ “Existentialism in Literature and Film” class I just mentioned. This sent me on an entirely new trajectory.

These days, I can say with confidence that I do not believe in God.  That is not to say I don’t think God exists. I simply think the question is irrelevant. I can’t even begin to tell you how long or how scary it has been for me to admit this to myself. There have been years of darkness associated with this admission because I simply have not wanted to acknowledge God’s death.

I think what was most difficult was letting go of the belief that there is an objective truth waiting to be discovered. I really thought I’d figure it out one day – that it all would make sense…

I still have so much to unlearn!

Mirroring People – Marco Iacoboni

I just finished a book by Marco Iacoboni entitled Mirroring People. I saw it on the “New Books” shelf at the library and the title attracted my attention. Not until the end of the book does Iacoboni claim that his research is existential neurology. That made me smile.

Most of the book is about the research on mirror neurons and how it works. I only provide a few sketchy notes below. To learn more about mirror neurons, check out this 2005 Nova clip which provides a fun introduction.

The research in mirror neurons is still primarily introductory research but it kind of excites me because it points to some of the stuff I’ve been grappling with in terms of how our abstract categorical language keeps us from fully realizing who it is we are, my issues with Christianity, and my more recent interest in Existentialism.

A mirror neuron is a neuron which fires both when a monkey performs an action and when it sees someone else performing that action. The neuron mirrors the behavior of the other animal. These single cell neurons have been directly observed in monkeys but not in humans because of the invasive procedure necessary to observe single cell neurons. However, with the use of an fMRI, neurologists can observe human brain patterns that seem to show that humans likewise have mirror neurons and that these neurons likewise predict the action that follows the one observed.

A long held view is that the mind is something like a computer, but another view is taking its place – “that our mental processes are shaped by our bodies and by the types of perceptual and motor experiences that are the product of their movement through an interaction with the surrounding world. The view is generally called embodied cognition, and the version of this theory especially dedicated to language is known as embodied semantics.” The discovery of mirror neurons reinforces that cognition and language are embodied.

Iacoboni says that it is only after we feel emotions internally that we are able to explicitly recognize them. Most people who are shown pictures of people will mimic their facial expressions and the mirror neuron system of their brains will light up significantly. If they are asked to hold a pencil in their mouth while watching the facial expressions, neurons will light up, but not as significantly. This seems counterintutive because we’ve bought into the opposite theory – that we must first recognize emotions before we feel them. But there is no evidence whatsoever to uphold this theory. Indeed, if you think about how you feel, it is pre-reflective.

We tend to view our “self” as distinguishable from the “other”, but the discovery of mirror neurons are challenging this theory, too. Iacoboni says the problem is that “Western culture is dominated by an individualistic, solipsistic framework that has taken for granted the assumption of a complete separation between self and other. We are entrenched in this idea that any suggestion of interdependence of self and other may sound not just counterintuitive to us, but difficult, if not impossible, to accept.” Mirror neurons put the self and the other back together again. Also, there have been studies done that show a deficit of mirror neurons is a key factor for social disorders.

There is a whole new discipline emerging called neuroethics which has come about through the questions raised by the discovery of mirror neurons. Iacoboni writes, “The classical conflict between those who emphasize the biological determinism of human behavior and those who insist that our ideas and social behavior rise above our neurobiological makeup has never considered the possibility that our neurobiology dictates our social behavior to begin with.”

In addition to the mirror neuron system, there may also be a default state network that is concerned with both self and other, in which self and other are interdependent. Iacoboni calls these two selfs “two sides of the same coin.” Iacoboni says he is convinced that, “Mirror neurons are the brain cells that fill the gap between self and other by enabling some sort of simulation or inner imitation of actions of others.”

The most dominant view in Western culture in thinking about the mind originates from a position that goes back to Descartes that the starting point of the mind is the private, individual, solitary act of thinking. But according to Merleau-Ponty, “I live in the facial expression of the other, as I feel him living in mine.” And Wittgenstein: “We see emotion… We do not see facial contortions and make the inference that he is feeling joy, grief, boredom. We describe the face immediately as sad, radiant, bored, even when we are unable to give any other description of the features.” According to Iacoboni, mirror neurons explain how the existential phenomenologists got it right and Descartes got it wrong.

Another consideration is that numerable studies show that we are not in control of our own choices – we have an overestimation of self-knowledge. Therefore, we can’t use our understanding of the self as a model for understanding other people if we have such a limited knowledge of our selves. We must make our inferences through a less abstract process. Mirror neuron activity reflects an experience-based, pre-reflective form of understanding other minds and the best description seems to be interdependence. (Remember Hamlet – “to be or not to be” – that’s not the question!!”)

Iacoboni claims that Existentialism has gotten a bad wrap. I totally agree! He says it is far more optimistic and about an empathetic, caring society, than it is about dread and despair. Existentialism, Iacoboni writes, “invites us to embrace meaning in this world, the world of our experience, rather than identifying meaning on some metaphysical plane, outside ourselves. Mirror neurons are the cells in our brain that make our experience, mostly made of interactions with other people, deeply meaningful. This is why I call the mirror neuron research an existential neuroscience of sorts.” It may sound like an oxymoron, but both existentialism and mirror neurons teach us to be suspicious of rigid dichotomies. (He cites Hubert Dreyfus who gave a Presidential Address to the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association emphasizing what is wrong with the analytic/continental dichotomy and reminded attendees why both “sides” of philosophy are important. ) Mirror neurons show that we are not alone and are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another. Iacoboni also cites Kierkegaard who proposed that our existence becomes meaningful only to a commitment to the finite and temporal. It is this commitment that defines us. Iacoboni says the neural resonance between self and other that mirror neurons allow is, in his opinion, the embodiment of such a condition.

We are wired for empathy. Perhaps it is the fact that we fell for abstract thought and became, as Nietzsche put it, meaning junkies and that has allowed for the current atrocities we find ourselves living with? We quit trusting ourselves in favor of abstract values.

Iacoboni says that we have been taught that the biological determinism of individual behavior is contrasted by a view of humans capable of rising above their biological makeup to define themselves through their ideas and their social codes. Mirror neuron research shows, however, that our social codes are largely dictated by our biology. Iacoboni believes that this understanding could have an immense effect on how we understand ourselves and how we relate to one another.

The Silence of God Trilogy (1961-1963)

I recently watched all of Ingmar Bergman’s Silence of God Trilogy. Bergman was raised by a Lutheran minister in a very harsh, cold religious atmosphere. My religious upbringing was much more warm and less imposing so I can’t really relate to what it was he had to let go. The God he had been taught to wait for was like a spider. Something hideous and cold. But he eventually came to the conclusion God is Love. He tried to get this across in Through a Glass Darkly, the first of the trilogy, but it didn’t really come across as he had hoped.

Through a Glass Darkly is “conquered certainty/God defined”.  Winter Light is the second in the trilogy – “certainty unmasked/God exposed.” It’s about a minister who is asked to tell a man why he should believe in God, but the minister finally professes his own disbelief. He comes to realizes his life has been a lie. It’s a harsh reality. Supposedly, this was Bergman’s favorite film of all the films he has made.

Near the end of the film, a disabled man who has suffered physically all of his life and wonders why it is everyone focuses on Jesus’ suffering since it was a relatively short suffering. Surely, the true suffering was created by the betrayal of his friends. That’s the suffering we endure when we discover we’ve been betrayed by our ideas of God. It’s harsh.  It’s cold. It’s grey.

The third film is The Silence about two sisters who represent different aspects of one person. Supposedly, Bergman wanted this film to be “a rendering of Hell on earth – my hell.” It was a hugely controversial movie when it was released because it contained homosexuality, masturbation, and other controversial sex scenes. One of the women is dying. She’s a translator – she translates books from one language to another so that others can understand them. At the same time, she and her sister speak the same language but do not understand one another.

This is the crux of existential angst. The dying sister represents our need to live up to certain ideals while the younger sister represents fleshly desire. The two cannot be reconciled in current Western society because our value of abstraction based on reason is completely incompatible with individualism and individual desire. The younger sister desperately wants to break away from the older, dying sister. She says things like “I wish she was dead” to a man she’s had casual sex with but who doesn’t understand her because they don’t speak the same language.

Dreyfus said that it is this lack of compatibility that has created the lack of meaning we experience today.  Our reliance on abstract values has created in us a reluctance to accept our darker sides. We want a perfect world where there is no crime, ugliness, baseness (Karamazov’s in Dostoevsky terms), but until we fully accept the darker aspects of our nature, we cannot transcend them.

Like the woman in Through a Glass Darkly who decides she can’t live in two worlds, we’ll opt for the world of illusion.  Or like the minister in Winter Light, we’ll opt for disconnectedness rather than love.

Lately, I’ve sort of redefined the problem to myself in terms of prescriptive and descriptive knowledge. We have a habit of understanding what is prescriptive as descriptive. We desperately want the world to be how we want it to be so are incapable of accepting the world as it is. We create gods, systems, and institutions upon this desire and then become slaves to them. We lose our freedom and innate ability to trust. Bergman uses children and outcasts to represent our original innocence – the boy in The Silence remains able to enjoy himself despite the loneliness and starkness of his surroundings.

I didn’t grow up with a cold religion, but I totally understand the disconnect that Bergman points to.  It’s such a difficult thing to reconcile. Atheists who turn to science, technology, etc. for salvation from the world as it is are no better than theists who turn to God for salvation. It’s the same thing – the same disconnect.

ACIM Lesson 142: Review of Lessons 123 & 124

My mind holds only what I think with God.

  • I thank my Father for His gifts to me.
  • Let me remember I am one with God.

Substitute reality for God.  We think we are separate from reality because we think what we think about is reality.  But it’s actually illusionary because when we have a rational thought about something and put words to it (labels and categories, etc.), it is already in the past.   Alan Watts provides an example from Marshall McLuhan, it’s as though we are “driving a car while looking at the rearview mirror.”  The environment in which we believe our self to exist is always a past environment.  It isn’t the one we are actually in.

Clearly, the past no longer exists.  And all that lies before us is infinite potential (Nietzsche’s analogy of being out at sea and realizing we’ve burned both the land and the bridges and all there is, is sea, sea, sea.)   When we put too much faith in our past (the land and bridges), then we can’t be open to the present.  But if we fully recognize that we exist in infinite potential, how could we not be grateful?

Hubert Dreyfus said this was exactly how Dostoevsky “existentialized” (de-magicalized) God.  God, for Dostoevsky, was a field of infinite possibility.   We live, breathe, and have our being within this field of infinite possibility.   When we realize this, what is there to blame?  The past doesn’t bind us unless we allow it to bind us.  We give the past all the meaning it has and it doesn’t even exist!!  Make it a good story – one that opens you to infinite possibility and frees you from the past rather than a story that keeps you mired in the past.

Be thankful.  We are one with all that is and all that is exists in infinite potentiality.

Thoughts on Infinite Potential, Original Sin and Western Idealism

Hubert Dreyfus described Dostoevsky’s use of the term God as infinite potential. This likewise seems to be how the term is used in ACIM and much of Hinduism. It’s also the understanding within Buddhism which doesn’t use the term God, but according to Robert Thurman, it would be accurate to describe Buddhist Nothingness as infinite potentiality.

We are completely responsible for what it is we create/experience within this infinite potential. If you wish to transform yourself into a thing of infinite love and infinite beauty, you can do that because there is no limit to the ways in which we evolve. The danger, of course, is that if you can evolve into a thing of infinite beauty, the negative is also possible. Our fate is in our hands, not because there is a supreme being who will punish us for doing the wrong thing, but because there are no limits beyond the ones we create surrounding our evolutionary ability. Sartre says we are condemned to freedom which is a really negative way of saying that freedom requires responsibility. Perhaps Sartre is in bad faith by thinking of it in this way since the idea of condemnation is a potential obstruction to our recognition of total freedom? What is it that makes us think of freedom as a condemnation? Western Idealism based on Western Christianity.

The idea of Original Sin came about through the story of Adam and Eve. But this is sort of curious because no where in the story is the term “sin” used. In fact, Judaism emphatically rejects Original sin and man as fallen. St. Paul, a Helenized Jew, introduced the idea to Christianity in Romans: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man [Adam], and death came through sin, and so death spread to all because all have sinned – sin was indeed in the world before the law, but sin is not reckoned when there is no law.” (Romans 5:12-13, NRSV). It is significant that Paul was Helenized because what he was doing was reinterpreting a Jewish text in Greek terms.

In Greco/Roman thought, the universal is higher than the individual. Being an individual is not important. What is important is obedience to the highest good. But in Judaism, the individual is higher than the universal. Truth is local and historical and is arrived at through individual commitment. The emphasis in Judaism is on individual responsibility, not faith to a higher universal.

Rabbi Kushner says if there was to be an original sin in Judaism, it wouldn’t be that Adam and Eve disobeyed God, it would be the fact that they tried to pass off their individual responsibility – Adam by blaming Eve and Eve by blaming the serpent. (The word “sin” first shows up in Judaism in the story of Cain and Abel and is used in connection with Cain blaming his “fate” on Abel.) The death we experience is based upon self-consciousness. When Adam and Eve ate the apple, they became aware of “good and evil” which signifies the pairing of opposites from which identity as a separate self arises. The punishment is separation which is a result of individual choice and perception. It’s not a universal condemnation as understood by Paul.

But even Paul’s universal condemnation isn’t so bad if seen in terms of the continuation of a pattern – a tendency to sin that has been passed down to us by previous generations. This is how it was understood in early Eastern Christianity. It is simply the first sin like the first car is the first car – it has an influence on the present. The introduction of the first car has brought about a change in the way we experience the world, so did the first sin. The introduction of sin brings with it the tendency to sin and the introduction of a good act brings with it the tendency to do good. Humanity is not condemned to anything it can’t overcome on its own accord. It is not condemned to a prior definition.

But in the late 4th century, St. Augustine, who attempted to Platonize all Christian terms (one of the first major attempts to fully merge the absolutes of Greek thought with the individualism of Judeo-Christian thought), determined that humanity is condemned to sin because all of humanity took part in the sin of Adam. See the universals working here? The individual doesn’t matter. If it happened to Adam, then it happened to humanity. Rather than humanity being understood as having a tendency to sin, humanity is understood as sinful. Augustine thought that even a baby who wasn’t baptised would go to Hell because the baby was born sinful. The church later relaxed it’s stance on this thinking, but you get the idea. Man is born sinful and can only redeem himself through obedience to the church. This thinking (the Fall of Man theory) was widely accepted within Western Christianity (Roman Catholicism) and became extremely popular during the Middle Ages when Greek ideas were being translated into Latin. To overcome Original Sin, humanity was required to offer his faith in God and obedience to the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually he would be saved from his condemned state by getting to go to an other-worldly heaven.

Original Sin was heavily adopted by Protestantism in the 16th century. The Protestant interpretation made man even more guilty than did the Roman Catholic interpretation. Unlike Roman Catholicism, obedience to church was not necessary for salvation. Salvation required an individual response: a profession of belief, often based on John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever shall believe in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.

To understand God as the Infinite Potential in which man freely creates doesn’t register within the understanding of a Fallen Man whose freedom has been compromised by Adam. We can only be saved from our fallen state through faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior who died for our sins or obedience to the church. When I was growing up, the Protestants thought the Catholics were condemned to Hell because they weren’t Protestant and the Catholics thought the Protestants were condemned to Hell because they weren’t Catholic. Since then, Protestantism has become more Catholic and Catholicism has become more Protestant.

But it still seems that Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov was absolutely correct in his story of the Grand Inquisitor to show that these two views are irreconcilable, unattainable ideals. As Charles B. Guignon explains, the Inquisitor is Roman Catholicism and Jesus is Protestanism . Both represent the encroaching idealism of modern society (whether religious or not). Roman Catholics are dedicated to achieving happiness for all while Protestantism stresses the dignity and well-being of the individual. The conundrum Ivan presents is this: Either we follow the Catholic dream of happiness and peace for all in a vast totalitarian state and abandon our desire for freedom and dignity (turning people into slaves), or we accept the Protestant demand of individual freedom and responsibility without worldly supports and condemn the vast majority of humanity to a life of abject misery in a war of all against all. There is no way out of it.

But notice – this conundrum is based specifically on ideals that have come out of the West. The conundrum doesn’t exist within Eastern Christianity or other Eastern traditions. Or, at least it didn’t until the 17th century when Western idealism started creeping in to Eastern thought.

According to Dostoevsky, Eastern Christianity has a completely different understanding of Christ. The image of Christ shows us that we should embrace our concrete being on earth, with all its suffering and joys, without trying to be more than what we are. This, we do, in the spirit of interconnectedness and with the understanding that we exist within Infinite Potential. We are not condemned to our humanity or to our freedom!!! We have creative power within Infinite Potential to influence our evolution.

Guignon points out that Ivan’s dilemma only works if we assume that humans are fundamentally isolated individuals (Fallen). From the standpoint of a primordial sense of the connectedness of life, the Western image of fallen isolated individuals motivated only by self-interest is a deformation of human nature, and not at all a truth about who it is we are.

This follows on my post from yesterday about Gratitude. I’m still trying to imagine Sisyphus grateful: “Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart” could potentially be gratitude.

Sisyphus’s enjoyment was based on taking advantage of others. He was avaricious, murderous, deceitful, power hungry, hubristic, and crafty. Those sorts of characteristics do tend to isolate us from others rather than connect us. And of course all of us are guilty of these sorts of passions to some extent. If we don’t actually commit murder, perhaps we have wished someone dead and if not dead, maybe just out of the way. But what, exactly, does Sisyphus’s punishment represent? I get that it represents the Absurd and I agree that it is representative of the present state of Western idealism. But, from the standpoint of a primordial sense of connectedness of life, does Sisyphus represent the truth of humanity or a deformation of nature?

I don’t have an answer for that right now.

What has bothered me all along is that Camus’ example relies upon the idea of Original Sin. Sisyphus bares the human guilt of passion and therefore must suffer. The greater the passion the greater the suffering so Sisyphus gets a doozie! Because Sisyphus is so passionate, if Sisyphus can overcome his despair, then anyone can. ” You have already grasped that Sisyphus is the absurd hero. He is,as much through his passions as through his torture. His scorn of the gods, his hatred of death, and his passion for life won him that unspeakable penalty in which the whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.” Is this not the spitting image of Original Sin?

I can’t help but think that what Camus is saying is that we have the ability to be happy despite being human and that bothers me. But at the same time, what we can’t imagine we can’t achieve and maybe this is what Camus means by saying “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” But then again, I totally agree with Kierkegaard – we can only be an individual through our recognition of “the other”. Robert Thurman says, if there was an individual that was the real you, not only would you not be individualistic, you wouldn’t even be there because in order to be there you have to be related. But if there was a part of you that was non-relational, then you couldn’t relate to other individuals. You couldn’t exist. [Hell may be other people (as Sartre says), but it is also a requirement of existence.] If we are an individualistic society, then the highest purpose of the collective is the individual purpose of all of us. Society’s purpose is to bring each of us to our highest potential.

Has Sisyphus achieved his individual potential? Does Sisyphus care at all about the happiness of others? Or is his only concern his own individual happiness?

I don’t know. This is one of those infinite loops for me. I have a feeling about it, but I can’t intellectually confirm it. I think part of the problem is that while I don’t particularly like Sisyphus, I do like Camus.

Myth of Sisyphus/The Absurd

I have now finished two books by Sartre and keep meaning to comment on them but get sidetracked with other interests. Camus has been of special interest to me because it kept hitting me in that uncomfortable place – “Yes, this sounds right. But it doesn’t feel right.” I tend to trust what feels right over what logically makes sense – but I still try to come up with a logical answer as to why. Solomon solved it for me which was a huge relief.

For years I’ve been trying to make sense of the world like Camus did – dropping God but attempting to maintain the metaphysical model. If you drop the hope but maintain the guilt, then there is no recourse but to view man as impotent. Even if you are able to “be happy” within your impotency, it’s still impotency. I think Solomon is right – we’ve gotten used to thinking of ourselves in this way. Even if we engage in a cause, it’s often more about distracting ourselves from our impotency than it is the belief that humanity can change. We aren’t living, we’re surviving. We aren’t at home in our world or with each other and we may very well destroy it and ourselves if we don’t manage to muster some faith in humankind in the world.

Camus was right in so many ways. He really was. The hope for the end of life is every bit as detrimental as the hope for another world because it keeps us focused on the future rather than the present. As bad as it gets, we always have a way out, right? At least we get to die and it’s over (unless we go to heaven or some other metaphysical plane). But of what value is that as far as living goes (even if we do go to heaven or wherever)? It makes sense that he would make Sisyphus immortal. He can’t get out of life through death because he lives forever. He doesn’t have the option to “live for a dying” like we do. He can only live to live. But if he did have the option to kill himself, would alternating between full engagement and revolt be enough to want to continue living? Wouldn’t the full engagement become nothing more than mere distraction at some point? I agree with Lynch – what is absurd is that Sisyphus doesn’t attempt suicide.

I imagine that I’ll be coming back to some of these thoughts I had on Myth of Sisyphus and Camus’s idea of the Absurd. Most were originally comments so thought I’d better put them into a post so I can find them easily and won’t lose them.

These may be a little jumbled and repetitive. I also may no longer agree with some of the points. Although after reading Solomon’s essay – I don’t think I was too far astray. (Unless, of course, I’ve misunderstood Solomon’s essay.)

————————————–

I’m not so easily accepting the Absurdist view although I do accept the paradox. It seems to me what Camus is saying is that the human condition is a desert and it is from the desert we have to find meaning. So Sisyphus finds meaning while forever pushing a rock up the mountain in a self-congratulatory snubbing of the gods. He can be self-congratulatory because he has managed to accept the drudgery and turmoil and thereby finds happiness within it. (Or something like that.)

ACIM takes a different tact. Yes, the world is meaningless, so whatever meaning it has for us we’ve given it. The point is to accept life on its own terms rather than the way we want it to be. We hold on to beliefs for our future based upon our past experience, but both the past and the future are an illusion. All there is – is now. Any attempt to live in the future or the past is going to lead to anxiety. The world is meaningless in and of itself – we have given it its meaning and it is we who must take responsibility for that meaning.

I like this quote from Victor Frankl:

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. Each man is questioned by life and can only answer to life by answering for his own life, by being responsible. Responsibleness is the essence of human existence.”

—————————————–

I agree that Camus saw value in living life to the fullest and that he saw hope (although I think he’d scorn the term). But it’s the myth that I find problematic. I fail to understand how it proves that suicide is not a valid option. I’m not trying to say that suicide is a valid option, just that I think the myth and all of Camus’ reasoning in the book (which I admit to not always following) doesn’t convince me that it isn’t. I think my fundamental problem with it is that I’m not sure I agree with the idea of Absurdism. I recognize the paradox, I’m just not sure I find it absurd. (Nietzsche was able to recognize the limits of reason without becoming an Absurdist.)

Also, Camus seems to want to create meaning in the middle of what he believes to be drudgery and misery. Sisyphus is doomed to an eternity of drudgery and misery and has to make meaning out of it and can only seem to do so through a self-congratulatory thumbing of his nose at the gods (he scorns the gods/his fate I guess?). I don’t think Nietzsche would have agreed that the human condition is toil and drudgery. I think he would have called Sisyphus’ condition slave morality. The will to power isn’t mastery over others, it’s mastery over oneself and ones own life. While agreeing with Camus that we need a morality that celebrates this life rather than some future life and one that doesn’t seek to avoid suffering, Nietzsche also wants us to appreciate a morality that is born within us rather than imposed upon us. (I think that idea came from Solomon.) I don’t think he’d agree that we have to scorn our condition in order to find meaning in it.

A side note – the reason Nietzsche used the term “will to power” was as a an alternative to Schopenhauer’s “will to life” (self-preservation) which Nietzsche saw as pessimistic. Solomon defines Will to Power as “the enthusiastic vitality to act on the world (rather than reacting to it).”

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning works much better for me (and talk about finding meaning within drudgery and misery!!). If I were to choose between Logotherapy and Absurdism, I’d definitely choose Logotherapy at this point. (And Existentialism over Absurdism, too.) I read Frankl’s book years ago and need to read it again. It had such a profound affect on me (probably one of the most profound of any book I’ve ever read). What I came away with is the understanding that we always have the ability to choose to be human, even if we are being treated like rats in a concentration camp at Auschwitz. We can choose to share our food with the starving because they are starving rather than take it from them because we are starving. To me, that fits much better with Nietzsche’s “Will to Power” than with the idea of “Will to Life”. It’s not about self-preservation. It’s self-mastery – even in dire circumstances.

———————————–

I think Tolstoy’s idea of taking a moment to lick the honey from the tree is much more convincing. (Or Frankl’s decision to appreciate the sunset rather than count down whether he would be one of the every nth men to be executed.) But isn’t the willingness to lick the honey from the tree or the decision to appreciate the sunset about creating man-made meaning rather than upholding the absurd as in the Myth of Sisyphus? If you recognize the ability to enjoy what is,what does that have to do with scorning your fate? It’s a choice. Which meaning do we choose to uphold? Fear (of death) or love (of life)?

I agree that life is absurd. I understand that Camus is not saying that human life is absurd and I recognize that realization of the Absurd is only possible through our ability to reflect (and that it is somewhat misleading to think of this in terms of “consciousness”). I recently read Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and both have their own way of presenting a similar concept although their conclusions are slightly different. I think it is true that we have to accept the Absurd. We have to face it. But why maintain it? Why must we “kill” misplaced expectations when we have the ability to transcend them? And is it even possible to “kill” our misplaced expectations? I think the Existentialists would say that it isn’t possible to get rid of them. We’ve already created them and so all that is left to do is overcome them. (Thus, Nietzsche’s constant overcoming). Any attempt to rid ourselves of our expectations, thumb our nose at them, or rebel against them will do more to maintain their authority over us than to allow us to overcome them.

I am in complete agreement with the Existentialists that there is no Absolute, there is no fate, there is no answer to “why we are here”, etc. But to say that “Life is above all” is a sort of Absolute, is it not? Do you see the problem? We’re stuck inside that sort of mindset and have no way out. We can’t go back to the sort of innocence Camus wants us to return to because we are no longer innocent. We asked “why” and that corrupted our relationship to life and destroyed our innocence. It is we who are guilty and it is we who have created the punishment.

If we rebel against the irrational, what exactly is it that we are rebelling against? Doesn’t this, in a sense, require the conclusion that our reasoning abilities are “all there is”? And if so, then doesn’t this prove that we remain stuck in the “Absolute” mindset?

According to Nietzsche, rebellion, in any form, is always based on a slave morality. What Nietzsche proposes is a master morality based on the Will to Power, which simply means we become Masters of ourselves. I don’t think that he would agree that we are slaves to our fate (rational beings in an irrational world?). We always have the ability to transcend our circumstances, but we can’t transcend our circumstances through rebellion. Camus, of course, thinks Nietzsche’s ideas about being able to overcome slavery and suffering are romantic and so dismisses them as “hope”. But I disagree. Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence just means that if we knew we were going to have to live our life over and over and over again, we’d make better choices. We’d be master of our existence rather than a slave to it. Therefore we should live our lives “AS IF” there is Eternal Recurrence. It’s very similar to Sisyphus continually rolling that rock up the mountain, but the difference is that Sisyphus is a slave to his fate.

It’s just a slight shift, maybe. Yes, we have to accept the Absurd. But we don’t have to maintain it because we have the ability to transcend it. This is not about expecting something “better” or “getting rid” of what it is we don’t like about ourselves or about life, it’s simply a shift in perception.

Camus says man-made meanings should never replace absurdism. But in a sense, isn’t absurdism man-made? Does irrationality “exist”? Does rationality “exist”?

Mysticism is a journey into “unknowing” while belief in fate or God is an attempt “to know”. Mysticism is the experience of the transcendence of belief, even if only experienced temporarily. It is not belief in fate or belief in God or even belief in transcendence. I think that is what Dostoevsky was pointing to. It is through love of life (rather than any means to deny it based on a fear of suffering) that we are able to transcend our beliefs about it. This doesn’t require upholding the absurd, merely an acceptance of it. Once fully accepted, it can be transcended. (From Nietzsche’s perspective – constant overcoming.)

——————————-

Life is most absurd when man acts rationally only because he expects a rational response to his rational behavior. (It could potentially be argued that irrational people don’t expect rational responses and if they do – this is simply further proof of their irrationality.)

It is the expectation for a rational response that creates the Absurd. Without the expectation, it doesn’t exist. The Buddhists would contend that expectation is the source of all suffering and the way to overcome suffering is to let go of expectations, not maintain them. (In other words, by all means, behave rationally. But don’t attach an expected end result to your behavior.)

———————————

This is from an article by Julian Young in Blackwell’s Companion to Phenomenology and Existentialism (edited by Dreyfus). I think the article starts around p. 523…

     Nietzsche remarks the “will to power” is always the will to more power. On one reading, this is the plausible claim that a sense of development, growth, ascending movement, continuing self-overcoming, is essential to a flourishing human life, specifically, that flourishes “in the present”. It is in the light of this remark that we can see, I think, that there is something wrong with the lives of Don Juan, the actor, and the friends of Camus’s youth – given that the later are offered as models, not merely of youth, but of an entire life. The problem with these lives is that they are entirely static and in the end, therefore, boring. The Don learns nothing from his love affairs; no affair is in anyway enriched by its predecessors. And the same is true for the actor – for Toad of Toad Hall or the democratic soul of Plato’s Republic. In short, though Camus is right to insist that life must be lived “in the present”, and right to warn against the kind of obsession with the future that ruins the present, he is wrong to exclude “building” from the life of the absurd here. On the contrary, the right kind of building, I would, with Nietzsche, suggest, is actually essential if such a life is to be a flourishing one. Certainly, to indulge in a momentary ad hominem – Camus himself abandoned Algieria for Paris , became himself “a man of purpose”

     Camus’s insufficiently nuanced attitude to “aims” is not, however, the major difficulty in his account of the absurd hero. The major problem is as follows.

     What we have seen is that the “happiness” of the absurd hero, is, in fact, overdetermined. On the one hand, we are compelled to “imagine Sisyphus happy because of his awareness of his own “nobility” of soul, his refusal to resign from a life ruined by the lucid awareness of death and with nothing to recommend it other than his own refusal to resign. On the other hand, however, Sisyphus is said to be happy because of his rapturous awareness of the “wondering little voices”, the sensuous joys of the earth, a rapture made possible precisely by lucid knowledge of the nothing. But if that is true, then Sisyphus’s life has, in fact, a great deal to recommend it and there is no possibility of gaining “dignity” through a “dogged revolt” against the resignation demanded of an intolerable situation.

     There is, in short, a fundamental contradiction contained in Camus’s description of the absurd hero. Sisyphus cannot both be happy on account of his own noble “perserverance” in the face of a condition that is nothing but “torment” and “anguish” and live a life that is filled with rapture. The absurd here cannot be both in revolt and in rapture.

     How should we proceed from here? How should we modify the life of the description of the absurd hero so that this life is an at least possible life? It seems to me clear, that we should abandoned the idea of “revolt”, which, in fact, seems to me to have almost nothing to be said in it’s favor.

Introducing the Existentialists, Imaginary Interviews with Sartre, Heidegger and Camus

I’ve read through all of Robert Solomon’s Imaginary Interviews with the Existentialists. It was so much fun. I have way too many highlights to summarize what it is I read. But, based on Solomon’s mock interviews, if I were to rate my interest in the Existentialists, I’d definitely place Heidegger first, which surprised me.

I bought Dreyfus’s book on Heidegger last year and had planned to make my way through his class which I hope is still available on Podcast. But after reading this interview, it’s probably good that I’ve been at least attempting to understand Sartre and Camus because Heidegger is apparently extremely difficult to follow!! His ideas through Solomon have really excited me, though. Some of the way he is coming at things seems to be how I’ve naturally gravitated. Like the idea of God. In the mock interview, Solomon asks him if he is an atheist. Heidegger replies, “I find that an unintelligible question.” According to Solomon, Camus and Sartre immediately answer “yes” – they are atheists. It’s perfectly intelligible to them.

Solomon asks Heidegger: “Is Being the same for you as God?” Heidegger answers: “Being is the same as Being.” I’m turning somersaults!!

I will try really hard to finish reading Sartre and Camus and the book I have by De Beauvoir before tackling Heidegger. And I really wanted to get to the Novak book on Nietzsche and Buddhism. Sartre and Camus are interesting, but I have the feeling I’m going to find Heidegger especially fascinating, even if I’m not able to fully understand him! (I’ll have Dreyfus & Solomon to help!)