Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Loose Ends

Now is the time on Sprockets in which we attempt to clarify and expand some past statements. Huzzah for quantity over quality!

Here's the last several posts in a nutshell:

As infants, we basically exist as radical empiricists. We know only what is right in front of us and what is inside us - ie, our hunger. A baby is a more consistant and thorough empiricist than David Hume ever was.

As we begin to conceive of the world as a discontinuous place (the mirror stage) and acquire language, our thought necassarily becomes more abstract. More symbolic, more concept based.

With the aid of our primary care givers (and possibly even a physical mirror) we begin to develop an idea of what we are, or what we should be. As the mirror stage metaphor goes, we see ourselves in a mirror, and our mothers say "Yes! That's you! Aren't you just so cute!" We see that image, we take it up, and it becomes our imago. Of course, it isn't us; it's a mirror image and we can't ever actually be that image. Our imago forms the horizon of our personal efforts - and like every other horizon, you can't actually reach it. It just moves further and further away.

Now, we live in a real world and there are facts about this world. Without getting into a discussion about theories of knowledge or tests for truth (they can come later), there is such a thing as a true statement. The thing is, our world contains such a vast number of possible true statements - or at least approximations of true statements - that no one human being can gather them all.

So which (potentially true or false) statements do we show interest in? The ones that serve our pursuit of our imago. I think the imago is basically a psychological concept, and as such I can only skirt around the edges of it. That being said, we find statements that we believe justify and aid the pursuit of our imago.

One can use both false and true statements to pursue their imago. This, I think, is what trips up pure subjectivists. You know, the people who think every truth statement is purely subjective. Statements that are false are almost or just as effective as statements that are true. Anyone who says their highest goal is the pursuit of truth is off the mark; their true highest goal is to believe and act as if their highest goal is the pursuit of truth.

An important point: while the actual truth of a statement is not vitally important, our belief about the truth of that statement is. Doubting a statement reduces its value in justifying and pursuing. And doubts about the justifications of our imago result in doubts about the value of our lives.

The statements that most readily aid and justify become the most important to us. Hence, our hierarchy of value. We also consider these statements to be the most true. It's the stuff we just won't question. This is also the stuff that the martyr and the seppuku-er die for. I like to steal Paul Tillich's term "the personal centre" and use it to describe how our imago and our most important statements interact; it's our personal identity.

The body of statements that aid our pursuit, as well as the (relatively) less interesting body of statements that we give intellectual ascent to but do not really care about, form our body of knowledge.

That's enough for one post. More later.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Suicide Is Painless

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide."

- Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus.

It's not quite the first line, but for sake of drama it probably should have been. Camus was a French writer that died in 1960; he is one of the unfortunates that history remembers as an "existentialist."

I just finished reading Sisyphus, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I like the way he thought, and I admire his political actions. However, despite my deep-seated respect, my philosophical agreements with him go little beyond the above quote.

I've had a few starts and stops while trying to explain myself on this blog. It's hard knowing where to begin. So, like Camus, I'll start at the literal end: death.

A lot of human thought goes into trying to figure out what the good life is. Aristotle had his ideas, Confucius had ideas, and Nietzsche had his ideas. There are a lot of people out there willing to tell you how to live a good life.

So how can we decide which of these ideas are right? I think the first step in deciding is to realize that the question of who is right is not of fundamental importance.

Maybe there are no good, comprehensive answers as to what the "good life" is. On the other hand, there is an easy way to see what a life poorly lived looks like. They end in suicide.

The answers to the question of the good life are incredibly diverse, and humans have been producing them for as long as speaking and writing have existed. Because of the complexity and openness of the question, it is nearly impossible to decide upon a correct path. Discussing suicide provides a solid and unquestionable boundary. Whatever else may be said of a suicide's life, that individual believed firmly that their life was not worth living. Knowing what factors drives people to suicide will help us avoid those factors in our own lives.

So why do people commit suicide?

That sounds like a question that needs to be answered in the vocabulary of psychology or psychiatry. I'm not a psychologist, though, and I don't play one on TV. So I'll write in the much more open (less rigorous?) vocabulary I am familiar with.

That vocabulary will require me to do some pre-supposing. I'm going to use terms that I haven't properly explained yet. The only real background reading for this I can give you is this post.

To supplement that post, we all seek to interpret ourselves into the world based upon an image that has been developing since infancy. We engage in certain activities to take on the corresponding identity; one man works with wood so he can be a carpenter, another writes a book so he can be a novelist. When we exercise our talents, we are donning a particular identity; we solidify our understanding of ourselves and further develop our imago.

To engage with the world and develop our imago, we all have to apply power. I mean power in the broadest and most inclusive sense possible. The carpenter and the athlete use physical power. The scientist uses intellectual power. The lawyer wields social power. Interpersonal relations are primarily influenced. though not necessarily dictated by, power. There are many expressions of power, but it is all the same principle (or perhaps one of two).

We also develop value hierarchies, and these hierarchies are based on the law of our imago (this is a term I don't think I need to explain right now). Different behavior patterns or events are more or less important to us, and more or less desirable, based upon this law. The world becomes understandable; we have answers for why things are the way they are, and we have a guide to action. The intersection of knowledge and ethics form the meaning structure through which the world becomes understandable and relatable.

Now, back to suicide.

I believe there are two basic reasons why people commit suicide.

1. The person's meaning structure is at stake, and only their death can preserve it. This is martyrdom or ritual suicide. History is full of accounts of people willingly choosing death - by their own hand or another's. A Japanese samurai could be placed into a situation in which their meaning structure - their knowledge, ethics, and very imago - were threatened. If the samurai refuses to commit seppuku in this context, then their image of themselves dissolves as surely as if they had died. They enter into a state of shame, and slide towards the second kind of suicide, even if they never arrive there. A martyr faces the same problem; if a Christian bows the knee to another God, then their imago is shattered and the intelligibility of their world is correspondingly damaged (grace and forgiveness shall be considered in another post). The Christian must accept death in order to preserve the coherence of their meaning structure. Both the ritual suicide and the martyr exert a great deal of power in giving themselves over as sacrifices, and thus both strengthen the meaning structures of those around them. But this meaning structure must already be existing - if Jesus died right after he met Peter, Christianity would never have been born. So - ritual/martyr suicide has a particular effect on a community: it strengthens an existing meaning structure.

2. A person commits the second kind of suicide when they are, for whatever reason, unable to develop their imago or assert their meaning structure. I'll call this nihilistic suicide. There are two ways this can happen. One is your standard clinical depression. Nothing has any meaning or significance, including one's self. Now, remember how the ritual/martyr suicide strengthens the meaning structure of the existing community? Nihilistic suicide is a pale reflection of this. The thoughts of "they'll miss me when I'm gone" is an attempt to pretend that suicide will bring meaning to their lives - but of course it doesn't, it brings only misery. Nihilistic suicide is also an attempt to exert a great deal of power in a short time; hence the fact that thoughts of suicide are in fact a great comfort to many people living through dark nights. No matter how bad things get, they always have the ultimate act of finality within their grasp.

The second expression of nihilistic suicide takes place when someone's meaning structure or imago is radically and totally destroyed in an extremely brief period of time. For example, in the great stock market crash of the late 1920s, many of the wealthy men that were ruined took their own lives. Their identity and worth was in their role as a wealthy man; when that was taken, they needed to commit a pale reflection of ritual suicide to regain that worth. However, their worth and identity was found in wealth, not in a community - their suicide does not achieve their goal.

It is nihilistic suicide that haunts the human race. Say what you will about philosophy, religion, science or anything else, suicide ends all the debates. Ritual/martyr suicides are necessary in specific contexts, and they are not evidence of the failure of a particular meaning structure - they are evidence of that structure's strength.

So what is the good life? The only specifics I'll ever be able to offer are tailored to my own life. I can offer a general answer, however: whatever moves you away from nihilistic suicide. Sound out your imago; seek to understand your world and to engage with it actively.

Saturday, January 14, 2006


Look! An update!

I decided I'd list a few of the blogs that I've recently begun to read.

Sacra Doctrina - The newest addition to my blog role. SD boasts probably the best blog writing I've ever come across. Written by some professor at some university, it's a fine showcase of conservative Christian thought and philosophy. Visit for the scholarship and writing, stay for the warm yet uncheesy stories about his family.

Mormon Philosophy and Theology - Another addition to my blog role. MPT is an interesting counterpoint to SD, because they sometimes cross philosophical paths. The best thing about MPT: it is a front row seat to the development of Mormon metaphysics. Endlessly fascinating. The second best thing about MPT: I was able to download almost an entire courses' worth of Hubert Dreyfus lecturing about Martin Heidegger from it. Champagne all around!

Vox Popli - One of the denizens of World Net Daily. The writer, Vox Day, is a libertarian who thinks voting rights should be greatly restricted and that women are prone to fascism. It makes for interesting reading and interesting discussions. Discussions that mysteriously end once certain people run out of quips and generalizations, though.

Right Reason - This blog has a stable of Conservative writers. It's interesting reading, a bit less polemic than Vox Popli. I rarely agree with anything I read here.

Radical Goddess Thealogy - That's thealogy, not theology. All about how male centred religions have destroyed the world and that mother religions would make it all better. Aaaactually, I shouldn't be so dismissive. I've pressed Athana on several issues, and have come to accept that we don't need to quarrel with each other. Or rather, I don't need to quarrel with her, since her answers were never anything but polite.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Year That Was

This is my second night back after returning from Canada. I was there to attend my brother's wedding, and I'm thinking about giving that topic a post of its own.

Here's a list of the best stuff that I've encountered this year. All in no particular order.


Batman Begins - Best comic book movie ever. That's all there is to say about it. And unlike X-Men or Spiderman or even the original Batman movie, this movie escapes its adolescent comic book trappings to be a truly good story. It's the first comic book movie that truly deserves to be on a year-end-best-of list.

The Devil's Rejects - I saw the trailer for this movie, and was immediately interested. I later discovered it was the sequel to the gorefest House of 1000 Corpses, which I decided to rent. 1000 Corpses was terrible, an utter waste of time. That dampened my anticipation for Devil's Rejects somewhat, but still decided to see it once it hit theatres. I'm glad I did, because The Devil's Rejects was definately one of the best movies of 2005. It uses the same crazy killer family from the first movie, but actually fleshes them out and makes them characters. The movie's greatness comes largely from its ability to screw up the audiences sympathies - just who are we supposed to identify with: the Firefly family, or the increasingly brutal sheriff hunting them down?

Serenity - Shiny! Fox might have stabbed Firefly in the back, but you can't keep a good story down. Whedon went to the mat to get this one produced, and the few who saw it are glad he did. The best dialogue and most original take on the English language since A Clockwork Orange.

Revenge of the Sith - Yeah, a Star Wars prequel is on my year end list. Who'da'thunk it?

King Kong - After Jamie's notice that The Life Aquatic was actually released in 2004, I had to add a different movie. King Kong makes the grade, as it has grown in my memory. I've skimmed the IMDB message board for Kong, and it is full of retarded fools. They seem to have seriously misunderstood this most joyous and innocent of movies; they complain about how the battle between Kong and the 3 T-Rexes was "unrealistic." The tone of the movie seems to escape them, and that baffles me. A fine follow up to LotR, all considered.


(Both the music and books section will be about things I encountered for the first time in 2005, not necassarily things produced in 2005.)

You Forgot It In People by Broken Social Scene - Anthems For A Seventeen Year-Old Girl is going to be a timeless tune. Meloncholy and original, the whole album is perfect for spending 13 hours staring out the window of a 747.

I'm Wide Awake Its Morning
by Bright Eyes - It's kinda pretentious and maybe a bit insincere. That being said, there isn't a single mistep on the album. It all fits together. This is one of the few bits of music that proves country music doesn't have to be creatively bankrupt.

Wise and Otherwise by Harry Manx - Technically, I heard the song Only Then Will Your House Be Blessed several years ago. It wasn't until this past spring that I heard the rest of the album, however. And what an album it is - blues punctuated by a sitar. If the songs Coat of Mail or Don't Forget To Miss Me don't make you choke up just a little, you must be a zombie.

If I Should Fall From Grace With God by The Pogues - like Spirit of the West and Great Big Sea, but with more alcohol.

This music section could go longer, but I'm still jetlagged and want to go to bed. Honourable mentions would include Tom Waits, Snow Patrol, Spirit of the West, Bruce Cockburn and The Levellers.


The Gunslinger
by Stephen King - "The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed." So begins the 7 book series that took King more than 25 years to write, and will take me about a year to read. I just finished book 3, and am hooked. Just what awaits Roland & I at the Dark Tower? If you spoil if for me, I will hunt you down and kill you.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown - Just kidding! What a crap book. The movie might be ok, though.

Hmm... remembering what fiction books I read this year is a tough task, seeing as I don't have any of them with me. Maybe I'll complete this another time.


Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond -How did the west come to dominate the world? Jared says the answer is rooted in geographical concerns. It was a fascinating read, if only to gain a panoramic view of human history; a subject so vast it can't be reduced to any single narrative.

An Essay on Man by Ernst Cassirer - Another one of those books that has burrowed its way into my consciousness so much that I can't distinguish between my own thoughts and those that come from this book.

Erotism: Death and Sensuality by Georges Bataille - Bataille, in this and other writings, showed me how fruitful, useful and empirical philosophy really can be.

The Dynamics of Faith by Paul Tillich - The indirect cause of this post. Tillich's discussion of the nature of faith has become central to my own views and my new interest in theology.

Love, Power, and Justice by Paul Tillich - The Dynamics of Faith changed the way I think about faith, and this book changed the way I think about ethics. I have come to disagree with a substantial portion of what Tillich says here, but I still like Tillich's overall project.

And that's all, folks. Happy New Year!