You'll find these in reverse chronological order because I'm not insane
There is a phantom, and its name is Liberty. Poison it brings to the heart of man. Man thought he saw her, an angel gliding through the forest under a starless night. Dark and treacherous was the forest, and man did stumble, living and dying ever in pursuit of that light.
Yet eventually the sun rose, but so blinding it was that Man didn’t know what he saw. He imagined in his ecstatic blindness that the angel of Liberty had finally come upon him, after all the eons of pursuit. He fell to his knees, rejoicing, for he knew he had found Liberty.
Yet knowledge is an idolatrous thing. Knowledge is to deem yourself a god of comparable majesty as Reality itself, blasphemously claiming sight into her very heart.
Man had thousands of thousands of instances during which he might have learned that to know is to sin, yet so great was his hope that he forgot what the darkness had taught him.
But as with all idols, Man’s knowledge of Liberty’s arrival betrayed him. Certainly not immediately; in the first moments of ecstatic joy he was blinded by redemption. However, his worship was interrupted by the mundane, manifested in the form of hunger.
It was then that the palest serpent of doubt slithered across his mind. “Might not Liberty sustain me?” he asked. But to tame his racing heart, he told himself, “No, don’t fear: at least Liberty might at least aid in finding my next meal.”
And so he opened his eyes, which until then had been pasted shut as to avoid being burnt by the fierce sun. At first, the light continued to blind him, but by forcing his eyes to remain open, his vision began adjusting to behold the world around him.
It was then that horror threatened to overwhelm him. For he had believed, no, he had even known that he had found the angel of Liberty! But alas! The light that shone upon his face was, in the end, only light. And into this light the angel had vanished.
In this light of day, he was able to see the thorns, brambles, and boulders that had obscured his journey during the night. But in that moment, his thoughts turned from Liberty, for the light of the sun granted him understanding. And in understanding he believed he found control; in control he believed he found faith; and in faith, he believed he found manna to quench his soul.
“Perhaps I need not Liberty,” he said to himself, “I have this new light, I have the sun, and everything that comes from it.”
Yet after a moment of contemplation, the understanding, control, faith, and manna all turned to dust. For though the light granted sight, all it did was illuminate the endless corruption and death that had long plagued man. What is control, if its subject is corruption? What is manna, if its dough is made from poison?
And finally Man looked to the sun and said “I thought you gave me bread, but I see you are merely an illusionist; what I thought to be manna was only death masquerading as a meal. Oh, how I long to pursue Liberty once more! I want not illusory sustenance, but rather to fall at the feet of an angel that might sanctify my soul.”
But lo! A new despair passed through man; a despair that threatened to consume his soul entirely. For Man realized that is was only in the treacherous darkness that he was able to see Liberty’s soft glow. What could he now do, with the sun’s light illuminating everything? How could he possibly move forward, when vanished was the contrast that had served as his compass?
But as God once passed by Elijah, so God passed by Man, his knees already threatened to collapse. And as with Elijah, God was not in the Maelstrom; Earthquake; or Consuming Fire. As with Elijah, he passed by in the faintest murmur of a whisper.
And God said unto Man: “Ah my beloved! Did I not tell you to worship me above all else? Didn’t I command you to not make for yourself idols? The idols of old were fashioned from wood and stone; the idols of the present are fashioned within the mind; yet idols they remain, and corruption is their only directive. Why do you worship an idol that promises despair? Why do you bow to a knowledge whose only offering is death? Ah! For so long Man imagined that it was a tyrant who command him: ‘You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.’ But what Man imagined as Tyranny was instead perhaps the most loving gift Man has ever received. For when Man misnames God, Satan rejoices; another avenue has been paved whose destination is Hell.”
And for a moment, God was quiet. And doubt passed through Man like an ocean breeze in the Sahara; this doubt was not one of fear and confusion, but rather the sort that carries the clear possibility of redemption.
And after the doubt had washed against Man’s eyes, mind, and heart, God spoke once more: “Ah, you’ve met a new Angel; the Angel of doubt. Look around! You see brambles, but how can you know what lies beyond? You fixate on the light, but can you see what’s there in the shadows? It is for God to command, yet it is for Man to obey. To you I command: take heart; pursue Liberty, beyond your fear that she is lost forever. Seek everlasting life, for that is my kingdom. Remember that when I walked among you, I spoke of food that eternally satisfies, and drink that eternally quenches. Once again do I say: ‘Seek ye first the Kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.’"
And then the voice of God was gone.
Shalom fam. Let’s talk about something which is near and dear to my heart, namely the increasingly common occurrence of Christianity becoming a form of Idolatry. This is also deeply juicy insofar as it also seems to indicate that a huge portion of Christians and a huge portion of Atheists have actually been making the same intellectual mistake; it’s just being manifested in two different ways (hence, the two worldviews that we typically treat as being diametrically opposed).
Neat neat neat. Ok, so before we actually talk about either Christianity or Idolatry, we need to have a quick discussion of two other topics: The Origin of the Religious Impulse, and the Insufficiency of Language in Describing Reality. Good heavens. I’m unsure why I’m capitalizing these topics like book titles or something. Well, I’m going to stop that now, and I think that we’ll both be happier because of it.
Alright. Let’s talk the origin of the religious impulse (see, that’s much better). Now, this phrase seems needlessly pretentious, so allow me to inform you that I’m really only attempting to answer these sorts of questions: “What is religion?” “From where does religion arise?” “Why is this something that seems to manifest cross-culturally?”
Those sorts of questions are a bit more palatable. And as such, let’s snarf ‘em on down.
Ok, so in order to start unpacking these questions, let’s actually take a quick peek into the contents of your mind. Let me ask you the following question: How does your brain determine what to do next, in any given moment? Good question! Also, let’s just ignore free will for a hot second here, because that’ll really complicate the present discussion.
Well, if you think about it, it would seem that your brain (both consciously and subconsciously) is continually presenting itself with a wide variety of different paths you could follow. Then, it would seem that the brain somehow selects the optimal path. Even if you’re lying in bed, doing nothing, your brain is making the decision to continue doing nothing instead of, let’s say, getting up and making breakfast.
However, this is interesting because it begs an additional question: how on earth does your brain determine the optimal path forward? Well, there seem to be a variety of forces in your consciousness that strongly influence the direction of your decisions. Hunger, love, passion, hatred, apathy. You know, the different voices inside your head. However, what’s particularly interesting is that the existence of these particular forces seems to indicate that there actually is an optimal path forward, and your brain is constantly scrambling to orient itself closer towards this implied ideal state of being.
Ok. I think that this is actually a sufficient framework for starting to understand the religious impulse. In order to see this, let’s take a look at Greek Mythology. What’s going on in that ol’ boi? Well, let’s look at the Greek Pantheon. You have a god of the sea, a goddess of the harvest, a goddess of the hearth, a god of death, etc etc.
But what’s really happening here?
Well, it would appear that the greeks deified the different aspects of reality with the greatest degree of importance to their lives. There wasn’t a god of the inside of a beetle’s leaf. But why would they do this? More interestingly, in looking at other cultures around the world, we see extremely common practices. Why do people engage in these sorts of behaviors?
Well, I’d argue that this is actually a genius thing to do. Why? Because in deifying different aspects of existence, you’re essentially creating a framework for orienting the individual and collective attention around different aspects of reality with the greatest degree of value. Why is that genius? Especially on a societal level, this particular mechanism can serve to be an extraordinarily powerful organizational force in increasing the society’s net output.
How? Well, let’s look in particular at the practice of ritual sacrifice. What is actually happening there? Is it just a purely transactional action between man and imagined deity?
It would actually seem that there’s much more going on. In a ritual sacrifice, you essentially have an external mechanism that aids in the construction of a shared value hierarchy. When everyone sacrifices the family pig to the harvest god, this forces everyone to consciously recognize that it’s more important to orient attention and actions towards next season’s harvest than it is to simply eat the pig that you currently have.
The effect of this practice is therefore allowing society to determine how to most efficiently use resources by precisely identifying which aspects of reality have the highest degree of value. Put in slightly different language, the religious impulse allows people to orient their attention on the paths that can be taken which might allow them to move closer towards the ideal state of being.
Well that’s super interesting. Ok, now let’s talk language.
What’s a cup?
At an intuitive level, you know what a cup is. However, think about how you would define “cup” as precisely as possible. Cups can be made of different materials. Cups can come in different shapes. Cups can have handles, cups can be tall, cups can have lids. In fact, if you think about it, by slightly morphing different physical constructions, there are at least an uncountably infinite number of occurrences within reality that we would refer to as a cup. So… what’s a cup?
Ok, let me nobly approach the abyss and take a shot at answering this question. It seems that a cup is a thing that you use to drink things. Perhaps this definition is too overtly teleological for your taste, and you’re welcome to spend some of your own precious time attempting to rectify my sins, but I think that this definition is sufficient to make my point.
Why is this important? Well, there are two things. Any cup you see is actually infinitely complex, insofar as it’s the byproduct of quantum interactions between subatomic particles (and whatever the flip shack frack causes quantum interactions to take place). The more you meditate on that fact, the more wild it might seem that we casually use a monosyllabic word to describe something of that degree of complexity. Perhaps more wild is the fact that other people also know what we’re talking about when we refer to a “cup.”
The second reason this is important is because it indicates that I (Danny P Geisz) have been incorrectly thinking about the purpose of language. First allow me to draw attention to the fact that the same arguments I made about “cup” also apply to effectively any noun in the English Language, insofar as there’s an ostensive mapping between your language and a particular occurrence within reality.
Now then, in a previous life, I used to think that we have language to describe the contents of reality, ideally in as much detail as possible. However, I’m now realizing that’s not quite right. As we see in the example of the cup, it would seem that much of what language does is allow us to ignore almost everything that’s happening within reality, and only orient attention on the aspects of reality with the greatest degree of value to us humans.
What’s wild is that this isn’t just language, this is also what your brain is doing at the level of perception. When you look a cup, you don’t see an interwoven array of countless materials dancing as parts to become a cohesive whole. You see… a cup. A singular thing. Which is really wild.
What you’ll notice in this particular description of language is that it would seem language plays an incredibly similar role for us as religion did for ancient civilizations. Both of these systems create a multi-part system that allows for the user to create a symbolic mapping between the system and some aspect of reality with a particular degree of value. This mapping then allows the users of the system to orient themselves more closely towards their primordial, subconscious, and largely-undefinable conception of the ideal mode of being, or perhaps the optimal way of being.
Isn’t that so cool? It seems that there’s increasingly an attitude amongst “intellectual” circles that religion has been an absolute waste of time. That religion’s only purpose has been to allow humanity to daydream about what it wishes it could have, and is at best nonsensical, and at worst, existentially misleading and overtly tyrannical.
However, this discussion seems to indicate the religious impulse, and the advent of natural language arise from the same source within the context of human cognition. That, in turn, further seems to indicate that the effect of religion on humanity has been at least proportionally positive to the effect that language has had on humanity.
And wow. What a realization.
Ok, before we move on, there is one more thing that we ought to discuss. I’ve asserted that one of the most powerful purposes of language is that it allows us to ignore almost everything that’s actually happening in reality and narrowly focus on the objects of value. However, there is one particular thing that we humans have a strong incentive to understand in as great of depth as possible. And what is that? The implied ideal itself. By definition, the closer you can align yourself with the ideal state of being, the better you’ll be (assuming that human well-being forms a reasonably smooth manifold as a function of the different states of being). However, because reality is infinitely complex, and the implied ideal state of being is a hypothesized configuration of reality, then the implied ideal is also infinitely complex. Thus, no matter what you’re up to, or how well you understand reality, it’s a probabilistic certainty that you can always further align yourself with the implied ideal state of being. Thus insofar as language provides an imperfect means of orienting attention towards valuable aspects of reality, we might informally say that “there’s always work to be done” when it comes to achieving a better understanding of the ideal.
Ok. Enough about that. Let’s talk Christianity, and then let’s talk Idolatry.
Why on earth should anyone care about Christianity? Well, even if you’re a battle-hardened atheist, there’s absolutely no denying the popularity of Christianity. There just seems to be something about that particular belief system that has fundamentally captured the human imagination. But, dear lord, what is it?
Well, I think that in order to get to the bottom of that question, we should probably discuss some of the most important aspects of Christianity.
So, to that end, let’s start with this notion of “God.” What on earth do Christians mean when they use the term “God”? Hmm. In order to understand this, let’s perhaps look at some of the adjectives that are typically associated with “God.” There seems to be frequent discussions of the “King of kings, and Lord of Lords.” He’s described as “Perfect” and the essence of “Good.” He’s “all-knowing, all-seeing, ever-present.” He’s “perfect in his love for humanity.” Well, what the #$%* does any of that actually mean?
Well, if you think back to our discussion of the religious impulse, we had seen that the greeks used Greek mythology to deify different aspects of reality with the greatest degree of importance. Properly oriented interaction with the “gods” allowed humans to move closer towards an “ideal mode of being.”
However, if you look back at our fascinating collection of God-adjectives (patent-pending), it would appear that in the Christian sense, God is the supreme ideal of reality. He’s the greatest good imaginable. He’s identified with the notion of the highest aim of reality. He’s the fulfillment of everything that reality could be, in a profoundly divine sense.
Well, that’s interesting. As a side note, this conceptualization of God actually provides an improved context for understanding a variety of different Christian constructions. Take “sin” for example. Ah, sin. My old friend. Given my upbringing, I heard countless pastors squawk about how “sin separates us from God”, and given my naive conception of Christianity, this meant that I essentially conceptualized sins as containers of guilt and shame that arose from quasi-arbitrary actions. So yeah, really just lots of guilt and shame.
However, if you understand the idea of “union with God” as essentially the participation in the realization of everything that could be good and perfect about reality, then this entirely changes the idea of “sin.” Instead of sins being arbitrary actions that lead to a guilty conscience, sins are better understood as anything that manifests within the context of your reality that moves you away from this state of supreme ideal. In that sense, sins are tragedies, not arbitrary religious failures.
For me, this realization has been immensely satisfying because my adolescent conception of “sin” was either misguided or blatantly caustic, depending on which period of my life is under inspection.
Now you might be wondering: “you said you were going to discuss important aspects of reality; when are we going to talk about Jesus?” Ironically, the idea of “Jesus” isn’t actually particularly important within the context of the present discussion. I fully intend to discuss the symbolic significance of “Jesus” in much greater detail in a future post, so hold your raging metaphorical horses.
Perhaps to satisfy the masses, what I will say for the present moment is that “Jesus” is presented in the Bible as a response to the prevalence of “sin.” Using the language we’ve developed in this particular post, this asserts that the death and resurrection of Jesus (who can be thought of as the supreme ideal manifest in objective reality) fundamentally dealt with all the forces that arise within reality that keep it from realizing the highest ideal. Interesting, to say the least.
Ok, now that we’ve discussed some aspects of Christianity, let’s move on to a discussion of Idolatry.
But what even is Idolatry? Perhaps a better way of approaching this question is to ask what the Christians mean when they say “Idolatry.”
I’d argue that the best way to get to this is by inspecting the first two of the Ten Commandments (remember those lads, back from Exodus?).
Commandment numero uno: “You shall have no other gods before me.”
Commandment numero dos: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image… You shall not bow down to them or serve them.”
Hmm. Ok, so what is this saying? Well insofar as God is taken to be the supreme ideal, it seems that God is basically telling the Israelites “don’t aim lower than the highest realization of everything reality could be.”
Well that’s actually pretty useful, because the definition of an “idol” seems to fall right out: it seems that an “idol” is anything that someone might orient their life and actions around that isn’t this supreme ideal.
To put this in other language, we might say that in “worshipping an idol,” you’re confusing some tangible aspect of reality with the highest ideal of everything that reality could be.
However, given the current discussion, you might be justifiably asking the question “why on earth would anybody ‘worship an idol’ if it’s clearly to their detriment?”
That’s actually just a super good question. There are two main reasons I can think of that someone would do this. I think that in worshiping an idol, you’re essentially making a mistake of ignorance or fear.
Why ignorance? Let’s say you literally don’t have a conception of the highest ideal. In that case, I’d say it’s forgivable if you just latch on to some reasonably satisfying aspect of reality and hold on for dear life, literally because you don’t know any better. With that said, I’m not sure how prevalent this is, simply because we humans seem to have a subconscious current within us that continually tries to orient us towards a better state of reality.
Ok, with ignorance out of the way, why might fear cause you to practice idolatry? This is actually super interesting, and I think that this speaks to something extremely fundamental about the nature of human existence. Earlier we had asserted that given the fact that reality is infinitely complex, the implied ideal state of reality must also be infinitely complex. This also immediately implies that this highest ideal actually defies description in any finite system of representation, which further means that the highest ideal is far beyond human conception and written description.
But wait. If the highest ideal is beyond comprehension… then what’s to say that it actually exists? Think about this for a second, because it’s wildly important. Let’s say that you’ve found something within reality that provides a reasonable amount of fulfillment. If you’re actually aiming at the highest ideal, then you should be willing to cast aside what you have for the promise of something greater, even if you can’t conceptualize what that might be in the particular moment.
After actually meditating upon this, it would seem that actually orienting your life and decisions around the pursuit of the highest ideal is actually the most supreme act of faith imaginable. In a very legitimate sense, I’d argue that this is what it actually means to “believe in God.” And as we’ve seen, this is a wildly difficult thing to do.
Ok, in an effort to keep us moving, let’s take what we’ve discussed, and go straight for the jugular.
In a manifestation of unimaginable intellectual irony, it appears that many modern manifestations of Christianity are blatantly idolatrous. **gasp**
What do I mean by this? Specifically, it seems that a huge number of modern Christians have taken to worshipping the different aspects of the Christian story, instead of pursing the aspects and ideals manifest in reality that Christianity attempts to describe.
Perhaps some examples are in order?
My first two examples of Christianity becoming a form of idolatry are more, shall we say, institutional, whereas my final example is a bit more informal.
I think probably the first immediate example of this phenomenon is fundamentalism. For the unfamiliar, Christian Fundamentalism is essentially the belief that everything that is written in the Bible should be taken to be literally true. This is essentially asserting that the propositions written in the Bible almost become akin to the axioms of the reality, and are true without need for justification. Or perhaps the justification is that everything fundamentalists witness within reality is corroborated directly by the literal contents of the Bible. According to them, at least.
I’d argue that this is a clear manifestation of idolatry because this seems to assert that the pursuit of God is essentially equivalent to the pursuit of the Bible… which basically asserts the Bible itself is the supreme ideal.
A huge part of the issue here is that these sorts of arguments attempt to assert that reality is something which can be understood in terms of a finite set of propositions constructed using language. However, if you remember back to our discussion of language, language can at best provide an incomplete symbolic description of the contents of reality, but there is by no means a one-to-one mapping between language and reality, at least within the context of any language that’s remotely useful to humans.
Another reason that fundamentalism seems to be strikingly idolatrous is that in making a claim about objective truth, you’ve essentially planted your flag in the fields of Christianity, and seem to be utterly intellectually unwilling to consider the possibility of its insufficiency. Which seems to be exactly what we were describing when talked about how people practice idolatry from a place of fear.
The second example of Christianity as Idolatry that seems particularly potent is an effect I call Pastoral Totalitarianism. I define this to be when a Christian who has gained some degree of leadership or power in some Christian context asserts that their subordinates or congregation ought to believe their particular interpretation of Christianity, simply on their authority. In other words, the congregation is forced to believe a particular set of propositions because “the pastor says so.”
Aside from being horrifically nauseating, we can effectively use all our arguments regarding Christian Fundamentalism for Pastoral Totalitarianism. However, what’s even more gut wrenching is that whereas the fundamentalists seem to make their claims about the objective truth of the Bible using “the Bible,” “God,” or perhaps even “Reality” as their authority, under Pastoral Totalitarianism, the pastor is making claims about objective truth on his own authority! Can you possibly think of anything more narcissistic, arrogant, or repulsive? Dear lord! How utterly hideous!
However, to give the devil his due, the impulse that leads to Pastoral Totalitarianism is arguably just the totalitarian impulse that we all carry within us, to a certain degree. And perhaps I react so violently to it because I’m viscerally aware of my own tendency towards this particular behavior. Perhaps not within the realm of pastorship, given that I’ve hardly ever held a Christian leadership role of any value, but certainly within the context of other intellectual pursuits.
In any event, I think the other reason Pastoral Totalitarianism seems particularly odious is because there are typically certain members of the congregation that enter church in an emotionally vulnerable state. As such, these people have an increased susceptibility for emotional and spiritual manipulation, making them a particular good target for Pastoral Totalitarianism. Utterly tragic. One could bring to mind one’s favorite cult for additional evidence of an analogous phenomenon.
I think I should probably move on in an effort to prevent myself from becoming overtly judgmental and reprehensible. Let’s talk about the final example of Christianity as Idolatry.
This final more informal example is what I call the “Christianese effect.” In case you haven’t interacted with American Evangelicals in a phat minute, there’s a remarkably widespread phenomenon of Christians essentially parroting a finite set of slogans amongst themselves. Constantly.
Any of these sound familiar? “Hedge of protection” “Guard her heart” “Wrestling with Doubt” “ Saved by Grace” “Fellowship” “Do Life Together” “Traveling Mercies” “Body of Christ”.
If you know, then you know.
Ok, now I’d argue that this isn’t necessarily an issue in and of itself. Jargon naturally arises in almost every group that’s united by a singular pursuit, and “Christianese” just seems to be an instantiation of this effect.
The broader issue arises when Christianity becomes increasingly distilled down to a particular set of historical propositions with an associated set of fairly shallow implications, which are generally taken as the metric for determining whether you’re a “believer.” And this is actually potentially quite intellectually dangerous, because if these particular “beliefs” aren’t allowed to be challenged, then a person’s Christianity, which genuinely may have started from a place of authenticity, can quickly trend towards fear-driven idolatry (as previously discussed).
Once again, I’d like to make it very clear that I don’t want to be condemning towards this, because this is a wildly difficult thing to address. If Christianity has provided you with the symbolic language for understanding notions like love, grace, redemption, and sanctification, you’ll be forgiven if your first impulse isn’t to abandon your beliefs. However, the danger here is that the language that symbolically spoke to an individual in a moment of divine revelation can easily lose meaning with careless overuse. The reason why this can easily occur is because in living life, we naturally move between different physical, emotional, and spiritual contexts. Thus the language that carried such weight and meaning within one particular context may be effectively meaningless and arbitrary in another.
This is why it’s so unbelievably important to ask what people mean when they use Christian terms, because that brings to mind the intangible, and perhaps divine, aspects of reality towards which language points. The dangerous thing is when Christians (or really anyone) confuse language for that which language references, in all of its complexity. It’s in these moments that I’ve found aspects of Christian teaching can easily become idols, in that either the associated language or propositions are worshipped instead of the aspects of reality that these teachings reference.
Specifically, one might encounter many situations in which people worship the idea that “Jesus died for our sins” without actually attempting to reference the cosmological significance this action purported to have both within the context of human lives, and objective reality on the whole.
Frankly, I’m not fully satisfied with this discussion. I think that I haven’t properly articulated the point that my conscience wants me to make, but I think what we’ve discussed is at sufficient for you to get an incomplete sketch of the broader argument. As always, if anything about this captures your attention, please reach out to me.
Anyway, to continue moving forward, I believe that we should discuss what actually happens when Christianity becomes a form of Idolatry.
At a very high level, Christians have to understand that the claims they’re making about reality sound insane. Or, perhaps to be courteous, different Bible stories aren’t generally repeated in day-to-day life. People don’t typically rise from the dead. People don’t typically walk on water. People don’t typically transform five loaves into five-thousand. Thus, the immense danger when Christianity is distilled down to a finite set of propositions and transformed into an idol is that to the outside world, it appears that you are choosing to believe an arbitrary set of propositions. Even worse, the most important of these propositions seem to be blatantly impossible under a first-order inspection, like the idea that there was a perfect man who died and came back to life.
This is interesting because it allows us to get back to what I claimed at the beginning of this post: it would appear that a huge number of Christians and Atheists are making the same intellectual mistake. And what's the mistake? The belief that the contents of reality can be distilled down to a set of exact propositions.
More specifically, this mistake also manifests as the belief that religion is something that can be distilled down to a finite set of propositions. The major distinction between these two groups is whether they are willing to accept said propositions.
And can you really blame either group?
The atheists are essentially rejecting propositions which seem blatantly insane. They’re basically saying “No! I’m not going to believe something arbitrary that seems to make impossible claims! That’s literally just dumb!” Fair point.
However, the Christians are on the opposite end of the spectrum. In looking at the atheists, Christians are essentially saying, “Ok, yeah, but your life just seems so… empty and dead. Really not worth living. Because of that, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and choose to believe things that sound impossible, but might just give life meaning.” This is either stupidity or supreme courage (hi, Kierkegaard!), but the wild thing is that this decision actually seems to have profoundly positive consequences on people’s lives.
So what’s the fix? Well, as you might expect, I think the thing that needs to be deeply understood is that reality (and necessarily matters related to the divine) can’t be fully understood in term of propositions. Language and propositions aren’t a sufficiently robust technology to make that mapping. And I think that this is incredibly important because there seems to an underlying belief in our society that language directly corresponds to reality. As we saw with the example of the cup, language serves to help us ignore almost everything about reality, and only focus on that which manifests within the context of reality which has some degree of value.
I’d argue that perhaps a better way of viewing language is as a mechanism that aids in our negotiation with the contents of reality, but doesn’t take away from our reverence and recognition of its infinite complexity. Language references reality, it doesn’t directly correspond with it.
With this stated, one might ask what this means for atheists and Christians.
It seems that atheists are broadly rejecting belief in deities that can be distilled down to finite propositions. Great. However, to the atheists I say: throw away the shackles of arbitrary propositions! Strive to move towards a better understanding of the aspects of reality that can’t be understood in terms of finite propositions, yet nonetheless capture the human heart, mind, and soul!
To the Christians, I would say that if you truly believe in the meta-existence of this supreme ideal that you call God, then worship God, not Christianity! Perhaps another way of saying this is that if you truly believe in the validity of the ten commandments; if you truly believe that no gods should come before God, and that idolatry is a sin, it seems that one of the most “Christian” things you can do is strive to move beyond that which you believe Christianity is.
No need to mince words here. Roughly a month and a half ago, I was blatantly suicidal. I suppose such a declaration might cause some degree of consternation amongst those of you who care about me. First, ahh, thanks! Secondly, to make a long story short, I’m now moving forward in what I believe is a constructive way, in large part due to the support of many of the most important people in my life. Which is to say (because I probably should be pretty clear here) that I’m not suicidal, haven’t been for a good period of time, and am generally quite stable (in some respects, more so than I was before that particular episode).
But enough about my mental health issues. Let’s look at something significantly more interesting: why I was suicidal. Now, an honest answer to that question would certainly take into account the more external factors of my situation, which included the fact that I was somewhat malnourished, my sleep and eating schedules were totally off, I had caught COVID, and was in a foreign country living with people I barely knew who generally didn’t want to be around me due to the virus. Heavens. When I actually write that down, I’m realizing it was a bit of a perfect storm for mental health issues. I should also note that a variety of caustic behavioral patterns into which I’ve fallen over the years were really starting to come back to bite me. Anyway, generally not the best combination of circumstances.
Actually, gracious, I’m realizing that perhaps the question isn’t why I was suicidal, but rather what I experienced mentally that I perceived as being the cause of my thought patterns. Also, I should mention for interested parties that at no point was I ever planning the means by which I wished to end my life, but rather was feeling an overwhelming desire to no longer live. Glad we cleared that one up.
Ok, enough beating around the bush. Let’s actually answer the question.
Basically, during the aforementioned moments, I was experiencing an utterly suffocating sense that everything in life was utterly meaningless, and there was nothing actually worth living for.
Hmm. I’m thinking about how I want to tackle this from here.
First, let me say that this moment was essentially the culmination of the last two years of me being an atheist. During that interval, I’d essentially adopted an increasingly narrow understanding of reality in the name of empiricism, which I was basically able to maintain through a combination of arrogance and a lack of willingness to engage with different worldviews.
In any event, suffice it to say that the trajectory of my intellectual exploits was pointed towards hell, and this fact was somewhat lost on me until I glimpsed the fires for myself.
I suppose in an effort to unite the present narrative with the direction I want to take with this post, I should note that despite my feelings of utter hopelessness and desolation, I essentially convinced myself to try find a logical reason to abandon the worldview I had adopted at the time, even though I was subconsciously quite convinced I would be unsuccessful.
To make a reasonably long story short, through this process of brutally examining the way I viewed reality, I have become increasingly convinced that this whole “oh, everything is actually meaningless; we’re just a speck of dust in the cosmos” is actually a maggot-ridden pile of horseshit.
Perhaps to put this in different language, I’m fucking enraged at the intellectual laziness and blindness we’ve permitted ourselves to have allowed such an unbelievably arrogant worldview to become such a prevalent ideology. Especially in “intellectual” circles. To that end, I wish to lay assault on the notion of meaninglessness. Welcome to my Ted talk.
There are several different angles from which this requires attack, but I think perhaps we should attempt to understand what we mean at all when we say something is “meaningful” or “meaningless.” Before I continue, perhaps meditate on that question for a bit. The “What is the meaning of life?” ontological question has become sufficiently cliche as to have nearly lost any meaning, but perhaps attempt to parse what that question is really asking.
What do we mean when we ask “What is the meaning of life?”? (Wow, look at that strange punctuation! Any grammar nerds, please reach out to inform me whether I navigated that edge case correctly) In any event, that’s a bit of a hard question to answer. Perhaps to do so, we could reformulate the ontological question: let’s switch from asking “What’s the meaning of life?” to “What’s the significance of life?”. Those are either the same question or sufficiently similar that we can learn something about the former from the latter.
Ok, so let’s unpack this new question: “What’s the significance of life?”. The key word here is, of course, “significance.” (We’ll deal with “life” in a second :)). What do we mean when we ask about the significance of some event, action, or object has?
Well, we might say that the extent to which something is significant is directly tied with the extent to which the particular thing in question is connected with other entities or events that manifest in reality. Well, that’s a bit of a mouthful. Perhaps some examples are in order?
We might say that the assassination of a President is a significant event. I believe we’re at least intuitively aligned on that fact. But let’s ask the question: why is this event significant?
Let’s give our fake president a name. Let’s call him Tim. President Tim. Despite his name, he inspired the nation.
Anyway, we’re looking at why President Tim’s assassination was a significant event. Or perhaps we could ask “what was the significance of President Tim’s assassination?”
There are a couple different ways that we could go about this. We could say that such an event has historical significance, insofar as the President’s assassination caused a variety of events and circumstances to unfold. We could say that the assassination had geo-political significance, in so far as other world powers took immediate political action in response to the death of a significant world leader. Oh ho! And why might he have been a “significant” world leader? Well this certainly would have been the case if his actions had broad consequences on the lives of millions around the world.
Ok ok. Let’s take a step back here, and attempt to generalize.
When we talk about “significance” in this context, what are we really talking about? It’s clear that something is “significant” in proportion to its degree of connection.
Carefully read this statement: “The President’s death had historical significance because it caused a variety of events and circumstances to unfold”. The incredibly important word there is “caused”. “Caused” is the word that demonstrates some degree of connection between the object in question (an assassination) and other events.
In order to really bring home this point, let’s look at what it means for something to be “insignificant.” Well, as I imagine you intuitively feel, if an event is insignificant, then it essentially has a very low degree of connection with other events and entities that have manifest within the context of reality.
I just lifted up my phone. Is that a significant event? Or perhaps, how significant is that event relative to, say, the assassination of a President? The intuitive (and honest) answer is that my physical interaction with my phone is infinitesimally significant relative to the assassination of a President, especially within our context. My lifting up my phone might have some (utterly imperceptible) physical consequence on me, but if doesn’t affect anyone else. Or perhaps to use more illustrative language, my picking up my phone in an empty rooms is the “cause” of very few (or no) subsequent events within the context of societal experience. The assassination of the President, on the other hand, could very well lead to an entire change in political power, which could easily lead to massive change in the lives of millions of people.
Ok, I think that we’ve had quite enough of that particular example. Let’s really lock down on the thesis that’s being presented. When we talk about whether something is “meaningful” or “significant,” to some degree we’re discussing the causal connection this particular thing has with other aspects of reality.
Ok, good. Now let’s go for the goddamn jugular. What are we daring to say when we assert “everything is meaningless”? Well, for one thing, we’re essentially attributing ourselves a godlike understanding of reality, which speaks to some unspeakable narcissism.
But let’s attempt to speak of this a bit more objectively. When you say “everything is meaningless,” you’re essentially making the claim of a universal degree of arbitrariness. Or, perhaps to put it in different language, you’re essentially asserting that there’s some particular context in which “everything” (to speak abstractly) has no degree of causal connection to anything else.
Now why on earth would someone think this?
Hmm, as a brief aside, you’ll notice that my language is becoming increasingly violent. I would like to make clear that in no way am I attempting to condemn anyone who ascribes to this particular thought pattern. That would be an incalculable injustice, because I myself have been the ultimate servant of this particular ideology. When I speak with rage, the rage is not directed at some other group of people who I believe have in some way deceived me. No! I am my own deceiver! In me is the ultimate spirit of totalitarian malevolence, that would dare set itself up against God! When I speak with rage, I speak to the satanic presence within us that would create intellectual idols, and worship them as though they the source of truth!
Goodness, I’m realizing this is starting to have a particularly religious feel to it. While I have no idea who might be reading this, I think I should attempt to put several other things straight. Though I’m speaking with some degree of “Christian” language, I feel that it would be extremely wrong to call myself a Christian. (I was actually baptized about a month ago, but that was a totally bizarre experience that frankly I still need to make sense of, and can therefore be ignored within the context of the present discussion).
There are two reasons that I feel particularly inclined to use “Christian” language when discussing these topics. The first is more personal, and the second is much more… shall we say, global.
Reason 1: As my beloved and wickedly intelligent sister pointed out to me within the last month, because of my intensely Christian upbringing, Christianity provided the symbolic framework that I used to make sense of my experience and interaction with reality. As a side note, this came up in the first place because for many years, in some sense I’ve “blamed” my experience with Christianity in my youth for producing some of the more emotionally painful patterns into which I fall. For example, I have an incredibly strong conviction that I can’t and won’t be accepted in social situations. In my arrogance, I had “blamed” this phenomenon on the degree to which I took Christianity seriously in my youth, which in turn meant that I didn’t participate in many of semi-disrespectful and rebellious activities with which adolescent boys engage in order to jockey for social respect and acceptance. However, beloved reader, what kind of seven year old takes Christianity that seriously? Why on earth did I care that much? Could there perhaps be some more intrinsic element of my personality that manifested itself through the symbolic framework of Christianity, which in turn lead to my particular attitude towards social acceptance? In any event, for better or worse, my involved history with Christianity means that I naturally find metaphors between my experience attempting to pursue truth and Christian teaching (and who the hell is there to say that’s a coincidence?)
Reason 2: Christianity and Biblical interpretation have been some of the most fundamental mediums by which people throughout the millennium have attempted to answer and understand the most central questions posed by the human experience. That of course isn’t to say that Christianity can’t easily become a tyrannical and idolatrous force in it’s own way (more on that in another post :)), but perhaps as a mirror of my own experience, Christianity has undergone the crucible of millennia of human interpretation and the human quest to understand matters of the divine. That fact used to make me a bit queasy, because what could be more arbitrary than human interpretation? Well, idiot (referring to 2020 Danny), who the hell are you to say that there aren’t actually deep emotional and psychological behaviors that generally manifest cross-culturally and inter-temporally? How do you explain love? Or greed? Or jealousy? There are a set of fundamental psychological patterns that are shared by the vast majority of humans. Who, then, are you to say that human interpretation and introspection is an arbitrary process? Well, you (again, talking to myself) must be an unthinkably narcissistic, blind, and intellectually tyrannical. Or perhaps, in an attempt to have grace with own (past and present) ignorance, we could say that the spirit of narcissism, blindness, and tyranny lives within me, as it does with every other human. In some sense, the project of life is learning to negotiate with the spirits that provide the experiences of consciousness.
Goodness, I seem to be totally lost in the sauce, don’t I! What was I even writing about? Oh yes! First I was attempting to justify my use of Christian language despite my (potentially) non-christian status. And the reason I was doing that was to continue to describe the arrogance of the statement that “everything is meaningless.”
Hmm. I suppose there are two things that I should attempt to do moving forward. First I would like to continue exploring the statement “everything is meaningless.” Then, depending on the context of that conversation, I might be in a position to reasonably assert that that statement is at best a theory, and should not be taken as a central ideology. Onward!
Ok. “Everything is meaningless.” What does this mean? I had briefly unpacked this, but perhaps let’s attempt to take this apart a bit more collaboratively.
Unless you have some superhuman (or potentially idolatrous) faith in God, it’s extremely plausible that deep within you lies a fear that everything is, in fact, meaningless. The reason that I bring this up is that it would be immensely helpful if you can bring to your consciousness this particular fear. For the religious among you, this is essentially akin to the fear that there is, in fact, no God. And I might assert that even if you would count yourself among the religious, it’s entirely intellectually honest (and even encouraged, in some spiritual sense) to deeply engage with this fear. Dear lord, what on earth is your faith in God if it’s unable to stand against the fear of his absence.
Anyway, please take a moment to bring this particular fear to mind. And, I apologize for getting off topic: I mean the fear that “Everything is meaningless.”
Really marinate in this for a second. I would recommend doing this late at night when the Chaos of reality is most readily manifest through the absence of illumination.
Ok, I’m going to assume that you’ve followed my advice, and are hopefully deeply engaged with the deeply intrinsic fear that everything is meaningless.
Alright friends, here we go! Are we going to attempt to convince ourselves that this fear is unwarranted? Hell no! Let’s feed the beast! Let’s make him strong! Only then can we truly approach him to determine if he truly holds the final word! Talk about the ultimate final boss!
And to be explicitly clear, my goal with the subsequent discussion is to attempt to justify the assertion that “everything is meaningless” as much as possible. Let’s begin!
Well, I think that probably a good place to start is arbitrary suffering. Evil, some might call it. Let’s try to be specific as possible with these. Let’s really try to engage with the malevolence of life.
Hmm, why not start with Putin and Ukraine? OHCHR reports that 1,480 civilians are confirmed to have died in Ukraine, though many speculate that this number is much higher. Why have these people died? I’m certainly no expert on Putin, but it largely seems that thousands have died because of a single individual’s extremely misguided understanding of what is to bring about the flourishing of the human race.
Does that sound familiar? Anybody catching whiffs of Hitler? Stalin? Perhaps Mao?
In what universe that has any semblance of higher order would thousands, millions even die because of someone’s ignorance?
Let’s move on to Africa, shall we? My brother recently worked in conjunction with a group that works directly in one of Africa’s many slums. This group recently held a celebration because the rate of rape had dropped to 90% in their particular slum.
Hello? Anybody home? 90%?? Are you kidding me? How dare we battle against the notion that “everything is meaningless” when a rape rate of 90% is something worth celebrating?
But in the immortal words of Joseph Stalin, “a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths are a statistic”. So perhaps instead of paying attention to silly statistics, let’s look at actual tragedies, shall we?
Perhaps let’s explore the life of David Berkowitz. At 22 (my age!), David stabbed two women to death on Christmas Eve. A year later, he approached two women at night, produced a pistol, and shot them both. Lovely stuff, isn’t it.
Hmm, I could continue, but what is the point? Goodness, do I need to convince you of the presence of arbitrary violence? Meaningless suffering? Lurking nihilism? That seems largely unnecessary. Unless you’ve lived an unthinkably insulated life, then no doubt is your connection with this particular topic particularly poignant.
How else might we strengthen the claim that everything is, in fact, meaningless? Perhaps instead of appealing to blatant demagoguery, let’s really try to give this some more theoretical meat.
In my experience (and this really says something about my life), when people say something like “everything is meaningless”, they typically aren’t discussing existential frustration with the injustice of life. Instead, this statement more frequently is paired with another statement like “we’re all just specks of dust, floating through the cosmos.”
So, perhaps let’s explore that particular statement in some degree of detail. “We’re all just specks of dust.” Another analogous claim that people frequently bring up is the notion that “We’re all just going to die someday.”
These sorts of statements are meant to invoke a sense of insignificance or arbitrariness of our current existence.
And actually, I was starting to get off track. I’d like to explore the “speck of dust” statement, because I think that it’s particularly useful for moving us towards the point that I’m making.
Why is it that asserting our status as a speck of dust immediately brings to an acute sense of meaninglessness?
Really think about this for a second. Pause the video, and then press play when you’re ready.
Ok, I’m going to take a crack at this. By bringing attention to the totality of the cosmos, you’re essentially bringing to mind a wide variety of cosmological actors which are, quite literally, almost totally unaffected by human existence (as far as we can tell). Is this unreasonable? Not at all! What would be the mechanism by which we could exert some degree of influence on the celestial bodies?
Well, perhaps the best answer that we could give is that the four fundamental forces could potentially be at work in influencing the evolution of the celestial bodies. So like, gravity and stuff (by stuff, I mean the electromagnetic force, the weak interaction, and the strong interaction).
Ok, and how much would these forces actually affect things like, say, the sun? The moon? Alpha Centauri? Geidi Prime (joking :))?
If you answered “like, not at all”, then ding ding ding! Someone gets a gold star! (If your reflexive answer included the term “infinitesimally”, then you get extra points).
Ok, so this notion of humanity being a speck in the cosmos brings to mind feelings of intense insignificance because within the presented context, the causal connection between the actions of humans and the evolution of these astronomical bodies is essentially infinitesimal (yay, extra points!)
This example is actually extremely helpful in allowing us to better understand what we mean when we say that “everything is meaningless”.
Much like the statement “we’re just specks, floating through the cosmos”, the statement that everything is meaningless implicit assumes the existence of some global context in which a variety of things might interact.
Now there are two ways that you can go from here. I guess I’ll just attempt to explain my own conception of this particular issue (instead of presupposing that my conception accurately describes your own) in order to maintain intellectual honesty.
Actually, I just tried to write down the first way that I conceptualize this issue, and it turned out to be quite difficult to coherently discuss. It’s also less important, so let’s just skip directly to the second conception. (You can safely ignore this last paragraph).
Ok, so let’s once again set the stage. “Everything is meaningless.” As previously asserted, this implicitly asserts the existence of some global context in which different entities might interact. Now, “everything is meaningless” is a bold statement, because it’s essentially asserting the sum total of “everything” lacks significance, or to use language that we developed earlier in this post, “everything” lacks some degree of causal connection with some broader context.
Ok, this is getting technical, and somewhat difficult to understand. I think that it would actually be illuminating to once again consider the alternative.
In that spirit, what if your life actually had meaning? What if your life actually had significance? What do we even mean by that particular statement? Well, for one thing, it actually doesn’t matter if the significance is positive or negative.
When we say that “your life has significance,” we’re presupposing the existence of… something (for lack of better word) on which your life has some effect. As (exhaustively) explored previously, the notion of significance is intrinsically connected with this notion of causal connection.
It would seem that part of the difficultly that arises when attempting to answer the question of “what is the meaning of life?” lies in the fact that it’s intensely difficult to even conceptualize the something that our life might have an effect upon. Are we talking about reality? The redemption of creation? The preparation of the world for the second coming of Christ?
As I explored in my previous post (about how we don’t know what we’re doing — pretty topical), there’s some very real sense that reality is trying to do something. I don’t mean to anthropomorphize reality (perhaps that’s the mortal conception of God?), but if you simply look around you, there has been a clear progression in the complexity hierarchy of reality that has lead to… well, us, humans.
Just to be a bit more clear about this, you have subatomic particles, which then form atoms, which them form molecules, which them form biological structures, which then form cells, which then form organs, which then form organisms, and boom! You get humans.
There’s a clear… well, let’s call it a “story”. There seems to be a clear story in the way that reality evolves throughout time.
Maybe to put it in more biting language, we could say that the evolution of reality, in some sense, seems to be the very opposite of “arbitrary.” While it’s extremely difficult (or perhaps, explicitly impossible) to clearly articulate what reality itself is doing, “something” seems to be happening.
And perhaps within the context of this theoretical understanding of reality, perhaps we have identified (though poorly) the overarching “something” on which your life has some causal effect.
“But Danny”, you might be saying, “if the ‘something’ that we’re discussing here is in fact some aspect of reality itself, wouldn’t my effect on this ‘something’ be trivial, like my gravitational effect on the evolution of the heavenly bodies?”
Well, to that, I might say “yes” and “no.” In a very real sense, this process is (by literal definition), much bigger than us.
However (and I’m going to speak mystically here, because I’m not really sure how else to do this), there’s a very real sense in which the actions that you take are in direct reflection of the fractally macroscopic actions behaviors of reality as a whole.
And what do I mean by that? In other posts, I’ve showed that I’m fascinated by the similarities that different structures show at different levels of the complexity hierarchy. For example, it’s fascinating that, in a very real sense, you can see something like “love” emerge in the interactions between atoms, or perhaps molecules. There are several common themes in how the most successful structures that manifest at different levels of the complexity hierarchy behave.
To take a step back, what I’m trying to say that is that even though something like a single electron essentially has no meaningful effect on the decisions that you make as a human (sound at all like the “speck in the cosmos”?), in some sense, the actions of the single electron are fundamentally what give rise to your existence. For without the actions of electrons, we wouldn’t have atoms, and without the intricate dance of multiple atoms, we might not have molecules, and so on and so forth! There is a dance, a game, that all entities in creation are playing, and success in the game enables continued progression of the story of reality.
So, truly blessed and anointed reader, you might ask, “what could possibly be the significance of my life in all of this?” Like the single electron, there might be structures scattered throughout reality on which your life might seem to have little effect.
But, again like the electron, by means of right interactions with the world around you, your life is the fundamental force that gives rise the continuation of the broader story of reality. What is the meaning of your life, you ask?
Your life adds a voice to the choir of creation, co-creating a hymn of the continual redemption of the entirety of fucking reality. Meditate on that for a bit, would you?
When I became an atheist (when I was 20), I felt distinctly relieved that I no longer felt the urge to justify the silliness of the Bible. It was such a relief that I didn’t have to constantly contort my mind, trying to actually believe that a man could turn five loaves into five thousand, or could walk on water.
However, in my old age (22 lol), I’m starting to realize that so much of the juice of the Bible lies in the fact that it has, quite literally, withstood the test of time. Instead of just trying to blindly believe that a man could turn water into wine, I’m learning to ask a different question: “What is is about [insert Bible story] that has so captured the human imagination that it has endured all these years?”
I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I’m learning to legitimately and carefully examine the significance of what’s in the original book (well, “book” as we know it).
More specifically, consider Romans 8:18-25: “I consider that our present sufferings are not comparable to the glory that will be revealed in us. The creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
We know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until the present time. Not only that, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved; but hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he can already see? But if we hope for what we do not yet see, we wait for it patiently.”
If you have a background in Christianity, then just for two fucking seconds, please look beyond what you think you know, and actually consider this statement. If you don’t have a background in Christianity, then just for two fucking seconds, actually consider this statement.
What on earth might it mean that the “whole creation” has been groaning in the pains of childbirth? This language is pregnant (see what I did there?) with a sense of expectation. There’s an incredibly real sense of present suffering, present frustration, present anguish, and present angst.
And yet. As with childbirth, amidst the utterly encompassing pain, there’s an expectation of new life to emerge, new possibility to flourish, the possibility of redemption to once again become manifest. When we discuss creation, we’re tempted to over-spiritualize. This either leads to an idolatrous view of the divine, or it leads to the contempt thereof.
So, ok then. Let me attempt to put modern language to that which it seems St. Paul was at least alluding.
The life of an electron is chaotic. It itself is barely exists as we’re able to conceptualize existence. It exists, somehow, as both a wave an a particle. Not only it its own existence one of intense chaos, but then it also interacts with a whole variety of other particles. It gets pulled to electrons, buffeted between stationary states of different angular momentum, repelled by its own brethren.
And yet, through some miracle, eventually it comes in contact with a set of protons and neutrons in such a manner that for the first time, it finds some degree of stable respite from the chaos of its existence. Order emerges from what had previously been a situation of pure chaos.
Thus that we see in some sense the very existence of the electron and the proton speaks to an ideal state of being, where order can emerge, and greater things are able to emerge.
What then, should we say of the eukaryotic cell? There are 30 trillion cells in the human body. It is effectively impossible for humans to try to conceptualize that number (we’re actually very bad at understanding the relative size of different numbers).
For a single cell, how on earth is it to know what it should do, or with what it should interact? It’s constantly being bombarded by a whole variety of ions and bio-molecules. However, by some orchestration (beyond human comprehension, I might add), these single units are able to orient themselves in such a manner that allows for a drastic increase in both their individual and collective stability.
But should we stop at just a singular groups of cells? Certainly not. The groups themselves begin to organize themselves into arrays of increasing complexity and stability. Millions of cells come together to form tissues, and from these tissues emerge complex interdependent organ systems. The existence of the tissues is impossible without the dance of single cells, and the singular cells benefit from the higher level organization that manifests and subdues broader swaths of chaos.
What should we say of the human being? Of the consciousness that miraculously emerges? Is it fair to attempt the understand the individual without understanding the constituents? The human being is impossible without the tissues, and analogously to the dance between the tissues and their constituent cells, the tissues benefit from the actions of the human.
But what, we might ask, are the electrons, the cells, the tissues, and the humans doing? At every level of the complexity hierarchy these entities are striving against the forces of destruction and chaos and seeking where they might pull structure out of the void.
Hmm. How then should we characterize this process? I’d say that St. Paul hit this one straight on the head: “The creation waits in eager expectation for the revelation of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not by its own will, but because of the One who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.”
There are a wide array of different tangents that could be explored, but perhaps I should close this post out for the present time, and delve into different matters in further posts.
As you might recall, the entire purpose of this post was an attempt to mount an attack against the idea that “everything is meaningless.” I naturally can’t say whether my words have had any particularly meaningful effect on you, but maybe think on these things a bit. What I have described here has been immensely beneficial to me in my struggle with suicidal depression.
Before I close, I know that I frequently say things like this, but if you find these matters important, and potentially want to discuss them with someone else, please, for the love of God, reach out to me. It is my heart’s truest desire to hear your thoughts on these matters. Please please please, send me an email, or a text. We’re not meant to consider these things in isolation.
In closing them, I’d like to include an excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov, which I think is the best book I’ve ever read. (Dostoevsky was an astute son of a motherless goat, to say the least). This is a quote from the last teachings of Father Zossima. This caught my attention because of how accurately it described my suicidal state. Do with it as you will.
“God took seeds from different worlds and sowed them on this earth, and His garden grew, and everything came up that could come up, but all growing things live and are alive only through the feeling of their contact with other mysterious worlds. If that feeling grows weak or is destroyed in you, what has grown up in you will die. Then you will become indifferent to life and even grow to hate it. That’s what I think.”
In which my Eyes Open
To begin, please note that everything in this post should be taken as theory. Though I will speak declaratively for convenience, it should be understood that I’m hurling ideas into the darkness in an attempt to identify that which may have a chance of aligning with the actual state of reality.
I have been stumbling in the darkness for roughly 22 years, and I believe I have just seen the faintest glimmer of light.
Within the context of my experience, it would seem that one of the most cunning tricks reality plays on us humans is imbuing us with the sense that we know why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Along those lines, perhaps the central catalyst that triggered the opening of my metaphorical eyes was the deep intuitive realization that we don’t, in fact, know why we do what we do.
There are a whole range of things we’ll need to unpack, but I suppose the first thing I should do is attempt to convince you of the above statement.
Consider waking up in the morning, and being faced with the decisions of what to wear that day. You might look in your closet and find the blue shirt compelling. Or perhaps the red top. And thus you’ve decided what you’ll be wearing for the day.
But why is it that you made that particular decision? Why on earth did you find the blue shirt compelling? Why did the red to catch your eye?
“Aesthetics,” you might say, “I just liked how the shirt looked.” But the tragedy of that answer is that in a single word (“Aesthetics”) you’ve masked a profoundly bizarre mystery. In doing this, we assign the simplistic label “Aesthetics” to the unimaginably complicated process that gives rise to the sensation of delight in the appearance of apparel. This is akin to a hypothetical (yet totally relatable) situation in Ancient Greece in which a child asks “where does lightning come from?” to which some adult might answer “Zeus’ Thunderbolt”.
Both the Thunderbolt and the term “Aesthetics” are intellectual placeholders that allow us to carry on a conversation in any meaningful way. And why is that useful at all? Well, we could certainly say that there might be many reasons why you chose to wear what you’re currently wearing. You might be wearing a coat because it’s raining outside. Or you might be dressed up for a wedding.
If someone were to ask you “why are you wearing that blue shirt?” and you answered “I liked how it looked” (a slight rephrasing of the term “Aesthetics”) that would constitute a perfectly reasonable explanation. Why? Because there’s an implicit assumption that the original question asker shares sufficient context with you to understand the decision to choose a shirt on the basis of aesthetics.
However, despite the fact that the term “aesthetics” might constitute a reasonable response within the context of the previous conversation, if you really think about it, that answer actually tells you almost nothing tangible. Why, in the name of everything holy, do you like how the blue shirt looks?
Perhaps you could say “oh, I liked the idea of how I might look in it that day.” But you have to understand that’s literally just a deferral to an equally ambiguous idea. Why, in the name of everything holy, did you like the idea of how you might look in that shirt?
I imagine you’re beginning to see the present conundrum. Furthermore, I can already see some of you whipping together explanations to what I’ve presented. I imagine you could invoke anything from psychology to evolutionary biology in an effort to get to the bottom of the unthinkably serious question: “why do you like the blue shirt?”
While of course I’m not going to discount those sorts of explanations, it should be understood that those explanations are in fact theories, possible explanations of the present phenomenon. And within the context of the present discussion, I don’t think those things actually matter, because my point was to illustrate that even the most trivial of our choices mask profound mysteries.
However, on that point, you might bring up something I alluded to earlier. What if you chose to wear a coat because it was raining outside? That choice seems to follow a very clear strain of logic. And I would concede to you in that regard. However, this question is complicated for a different reason: why did you even choose to go outside at all? In so far as the coat is used to avoid contact with the rain, why not just stay inside all together and don the dashing blue shirt?
Now yes, readers, I believe I can hear what some of you are saying. You could easily be thinking: “I would choose to wear the coat because there was something sufficiently important I had to do that I was willing to brave the rain.” Well, sure, but do can you smell the trap we’re falling into? What was so important that you were willing to go outside into the cold?
Do you see how quickly a question as trivial as “why did you wear a coat” morphs into a question of an importance or value hierarchy? You might value seeing your best friend’s wedding enough that you’d be willing to brave some bad weather. But then the question of “why did you wear a coat” becomes a rephrasing of the question “why do you value seeing your best friend’s wedding.” And that’s a wildly difficult question to answer.
Of course you could say, “well, she’s my best friend, of course I’d want to see her wedding. Her friendship has meant so much to me!” But once again, we’ve once again fallen upon an answer that would be entirely reasonable with common discourse, but actually tells us almost nothing by itself. It’s just like aesthetics: nearly everyone can relate to wanting to take part in a joyous occasion for a dear friend, just like nearly everyone can relate to the sensation of being compelled by a particular piece of attire. Of course, by itself that actually tells us almost nothing.
As an aside, perhaps we should consider why “aesthetics” is a reasonable answer in some circumstances, but not others. In an informal conversation, if someone were to ask “why did you wear that shirt,” there’s almost an implicit assertion of there being a set of acceptable answers to the question. “The weather,” “aesthetics,” and “I went to a wedding” all likely fall within that set. Thus, within the context of the informal question, “I just like this shirt” is an entirely appropriate answer. However, as I’m sure you’re aware, the question I’m asking is much different. I’m doing away with the presumption that one might pick a shirt simply as a matter of aesthetics. I’m looking for something more technical. Insofar as the answer to the presented question is, in fact, “aesthetics”, then my question essentially morphs into something like “Ok, so you like that shirt. But please tell me: why do you like that shirt?” In this context, I’m looking for an answer that potentially references a deeper structure or pattern that gives rise to your particular emotion.
Ok, let’s hop back to the main thread of discussion. I hope it’s become clear that seemingly simple questions regarding human behavior are in fact, typically wildly difficult to answer. And also, for those of you for whom what I’m discussing seems like child’s play, perhaps because you have some background in philosophy or psychology, I’d like to strongly remind you that no one is forcing you to read through my blog, and I understand that my knowledge and understanding in these areas is underdeveloped. I’m not (and really haven’t ever) purported to be putting forward something new, I’m simply attempting to describe what has been of great significance to me recently.
Hmm, I got off track. Let’s get back to the present discussion. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the “blue shirt” example is that it shows us something particularly interesting about humans: there are a wide range of questions regarding choices we make and behavioral patterns into which we fall for which we’re typically unable to articulate any real answers.
To rephrase this, there are a wide range of things that people do… but they have no idea why. Yet (and this is something profoundly bizarre) they think they do. Why? Because frequently they have a sense of deep intuition that guides their thoughts and actions, despite the source of the intuition being inarticulable upon closer inspection. Furthermore, what’s in some ways even stranger is the fact that we’re content to act upon these primordial impulses even though we are unable to properly describe them at a conscious level.
Isn’t that utterly bizarre? Like, utterly and totally bizarre? And I would propose that most important human actions fall into this category.
The realization that humans don’t know why they do what they do (aside from some intuitive urge) immediately begs the necessary (and obvious) question: why do humans do what they do? And perhaps even more importantly, what does that tell us about reality?
We can take a simplistic, high level approach in attempting to answer the first question. Perhaps we could say that human actions are either arbitrary (ie there isn’t actually a reason why you want to go to your best friend’s wedding — it’s actually all just a random fluke of evolution) or perhaps there actually is a deeper reason there.
I certainly have the intuitive sense that your wanting to be at your friend’s wedding isn’t actually that arbitrary, and there’s a body of scientific literature that would corroborate that particular hypothesis. We could easily invoke evolutionary theory, or perhaps revisit some past XFA posts for what I’d consider plausible explanations for why you feel the desire to attend your friend’s wedding (think love and tribal support as a evolutionary mechanism for survival). But I think the crucial thing to understand here is that those explanations by themselves don’t tell the whole story. What do I mean? In an effort to explain your desire to be at the wedding, we could perhaps assert that supporting different members of a tribe has been crucial to the evolutionary success of humans of the eons, and as such we developed a strong emotional desire to support each other and take part in different important aspects of each other’s lives. Ergo, you want to go the wedding.
But hold on for just one second, why does evolution even make sense in the first place? Why would reality favor the “fittest” over the weaker individuals? “Danny,” you might say, “that’s stupid. Of course the strong win against the weak.” But hold up, my friend! Do you see what you just did there? You invoked shared intuition to answer one of these questions! Yes, I also have the intuition that of course the strong should survive where the weak wouldn’t, but that’s actually not an answer to the question! We’re just right back in the camp of blue shirt “aesthetics.” Now then, if you’ve read my other posts, you’ll know that I’ve actually explored that topic in depth. But at each level of explanation, you can basically always continue to ask the question “why” and see a similar pattern emerge. For sake of example, a related question to why evolution would favor the strong over the weak is the question of why time is linear (flows in a single direction). This is a great example because it speaks to one of our most basic intuitions. “Well of course time is linear, how could it not be?” I believe you see the issue at play. We’ve been exploring the question of why people do what they do. But perhaps a slight rephrasing leads to an even juicer question: what are humans trying to do?
Oh ho ho! Now there’s an unthinkably interesting question.
“Ok,” you might say, “why do you think humans are actually trying to do anything?” Interesting question, reader! Well, frankly, we’re starting to dance along the boundaries of what is even philosophically answerable, but who cares! Let’s dive in! Well, perhaps we could approach this question in a somewhat naive way. Let’s just look at the history of humanity. Over the course of the last several thousand years, we can broadly see a clear progression of the human race. We’ve wildly improved our propensity for survival, we’ve created wondrous technologies, and we’ve wrought artistic masterpieces. Though it’s been bumpy, there seems to be a clear upward trend within the context of humanity. So at some purely intuitive level, why yes, it does seem that humanity is actually trying to do something. (Always amusing when you anthropomorphize the abstract notion of humanity). To rephrase, it would seem that humans are trying to do something.
The difficult aspect of this discussion is that it likely will feel so intuitively true that I fear you might miss how absolutely bizarre this is. Let me just quickly reiterate this in an attempt to rekindle the mystery. Humans mostly don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, and yet it would seem that they are actually trying to do something. Try to deeply grok that. Also, don’t take my word for it, just read some philosophy and you’ll quickly see there’s nothing original about this assertion. But that doesn’t make it any less mysterious! Not in the least! It’s totally bizarre! I can only hope that you see how weird it is! And of course, to return to previous strains of discussion, all of this just keeps begging the question: what are humans trying to do? Why is it that humans are trying to do that?
Now the second question is basically unfair because it requires us to answer the first question, which frankly seems like something of an impossible task. Oh sure, you could say simplistic things like “maximize their chance of survival.” Really? Is that really the best you can do? Well of course that’s partly true within the context of evolution, but that barely tells a slimmer of the story. I believe I’m going to discuss this further in another post, but by asserting that answer you’re basically planting your flag on an axiomatic framework in which reality favors the strong over the weak. Though perhaps it might seem silly, that’s basically the same thing as asserting that the most fundamental rule of reality is that I like blue shirts as a matter of “aesthetics”.
But whatever, go ahead. Let evolution be your religion. And see how much that does for you.
The aspect of all of this that I haven’t yet discussed is the degree to which different aspects of reality are connected and related. That, in particular, is what set my imagination ablaze recently. Let’s dig into this, perhaps with a personal example.
Who are you? Think carefully about this. Who are you? What are you? What has produced your particular experience? Why do you think the thoughts you think? Where do they come from?
Those are wildly difficult questions to answer, and is naturally the subject of a huge branch of philosophy. I’ll share my conception of this, and perhaps you might resonate in part with the description.
For most of my life, I’ve viewed humans in a highly individual manner. To me, people have been distinct, separate and separable entities. And to a certain degree, this is reasonable. We do in some ways appear to be highly autonomous entities. However, in recent days, I’ve begin to realize the extent to which that isn’t the case. I’ll ask it again: where do your thoughts come from? Where do your impulses come from? What is the source of that which appears in your consciousness.
Perhaps we could attempt to tackle this from several different angles. First let’s consider you in terms of your particular thought patterns. From where do your thoughts arise? Well, perhaps let’s start off simple. We could say that one of the most tangible classes of appearances in consciousness are your immediate sensations. You know, your sight, smell, etc. In one sense, you’re the only person receiving that particular set of stimuli in this particular moment. However, we’ll be revisiting this as a basis of individuality.
A major class of your thoughts are your recollections, or memories. Now in a certain sense, your memories are a testament to your nature as an individual. Rephrased, you’re the only one with your particular set of memories. We’ll also come back to these in a second.
Now let’s talk about something more interesting: the thoughts in which you attempt to make sense of some aspect of your perceived reality. Is he cheating on me? No, he wouldn’t because he loves me. Will I be late for class? Yes; I just woke up, and class starts in two minutes. Why are mountains so beautiful? Hmm, I really don’t know.
To what extent are these thoughts your own? I understand how this might seem like a trivial question: why wouldn’t they be my own? Aren’t they only in my head? However, I believe the situation is more complicated than that.
Let’s take the example of not knowing whether your boyfriend cheated on you. Now, once again, let’s be fair: your thought patterns pertaining to whether he actually committed this treacherous deed are only occurring within your head. And yet, the experience of having a boyfriend cheat is (unfortunately) a fairly common occurrence. So the question is, to what extent is your pattern of thought regarding this situation truly original?
Infidelity has been an incredibly common theme throughout the human experience. And in the archetypical example, there’s frequently a significant other who’s attempting to make sense of the situation. So perhaps instead of viewing this particular questioning thought pattern as unique to the individual, we can potentially imagine that there’s an archetypical response to a potentially unfaithful partner that’s being manifested in your mind, and is stretching itself to fit within the context of your situation.
Fascinating, isn’t it? However, I understand that it might seem like too much of a stretch to understand this particular thought pattern as an archetype that’s simply applying itself to your circumstances. Indeed, in some sense that might seem somewhat, well, foofy.
Perhaps I can give a bit of a more lively example to illustrate this point a bit better. Imagine there’s a gigantic pit within which live hundreds of mice, and a single gigantic snake. Imagine that the snake guards a hoard of corn kernels, which are the mice’s favorite food. Additionally imagine that the mice are starving, and would love nothing more than to feast of the cache guarded by the snake. Imagine that the snake is totally invincible, but has one flaw: whenever it is bitten on the tip of its tail, it falls asleep for two minutes. However, at the beginning of this thought experiment, the mice are utterly unaware of this.
Let’s imagine that we let this experiment play out for years. The mice are desperate, so they try everything to get past snake. Through a huge process of trial, error, and death, several of the mice develop a trait that compels them to bite the snake’s tail. And as you might imagine, these mice become the most successful when it comes to securing food for themselves and their offspring.
Ok, so what’s the point of the thought experiment? Well, let’s ask the question: to what extent is the bite-the-tail impulse an individualistic characteristic of each successful mouse? We could use the same arguments as before: this impulse is originating entirely within the confines of each mouse’s brain, so should we say it’s really their own thought or impulse?
Well, within the context of this experiment, I would assert that the goal of acquiring corn together with the snake’s particular weakness implies the existence of what we could could an “ideal” trait. Namely, the impulse to bite the snake’s tail. This framework provides a more generalizable understanding of the situation and impulse, and therefore I would argue is the better framework for understanding the experiment.
However, you’ll notice that in this framework, the bite-the-tail impulse isn’t understood as the individual property of any given mouse. As you might expect, I would assert that an analogous line of thinking applies to the human circumstance as well. Though we are individuals in a certain sense, I might assert that many of your analyses and impulses are actually just imperfect manifestations of the “ideal” implicitly asserted by the existence of an archetypical context and goal.
And that’s just at the level of us pseudo-rationally responding to a shared external consciousness. What then do we make of the primordial, subconscious impulses that architect our goals and desires in ways that surpass our conscious understanding? Perhaps we might think of this class of drivers as a deeper evolutionary response to shared context.
In so far as infidelity is something with which a huge number of humans have had to deal over the past eons, is it that wild to believe that through the mechanisms of evolutionary selection, we’ve been imbued with a hard-coded response to this class of malfeasance? These deep urges within us are shared evolved responses to some of the most important challenges humanity has faced over its lifespan. Their very existence is testament to shared nature of the human experience, and in a certain sense, this class of psychological drivers can’t really be understood if you only understand a human to be a pillar of individuality.
I imagine that none of this is really comes as much of a surprise, though perhaps let me reiterate an idea that I put forward earlier (and is the subject of a whole branch of philosophy). Perhaps instead of understanding humans as individuals with individual thoughts and experiences, perhaps it’s better to see humans as entities that manifest a particular set of “ideal” traits that are implied by the context of the shared human situation, yet are flavored by the particular context within which each human finds herself.
Now then, as a matter of extreme interest, I might attempt to turn the discussion back to a question of what humans are trying to do, despite their lack of awareness.
With the framework that we’ve developed to understand the nature of your thoughts, we could recognize that there’s a rephrasing of the preset question that is somewhat illustrative. We might say that the context in which humans find themselves implies the notion of an “ideal” human, which is in part evidenced by the deep intuitions and impulses that defy articulation, yet have unimaginable importance. So then, perhaps we could ask: what would this “ideal” human try to do? Or, perhaps insofar as all humans are imperfect manifestations of this ideal, what is this ideal human trying to do by means of us imperfect manifestations?
Now that is an interesting question.
I could keep on going, and in a very real sense I want to keep on going, but I am tired, and I also recognize that we’ve hit the 12 page mark. I don’t think it’s that unreasonable to assume I will be continuing these thoughts in the future.
Until then, know that the offer I made on my “about” page still stands: if you made it this far, I will gladly follow you into battle. Until next time, my friends. I wish you the best of luck in seeing the mysteries that exist right in front of your face.
Simply put, it was an utterly exquisite evening in the mountains. The leaves were making their final crescendo into a fortissimo of red, yellow, and blood orange; the effect was only accentuated by the final rays of a setting sun. The temperature of the air was precisely at the boundary between lukewarm and distinctly chilly, perhaps the perfect essence of the term “crisp.” The lower hills flowed so perfectly into the plains below it looked like God himself had used a wide-brimmed paintbrush to bring the landscape into existence.
The effect of the scene, however, was entirely lost on Danny as he once again attempted to understand the point Lauren was making.
“But wait. I feel like we’re operating under different definitions of the word ‘representation.’ Maybe that’s why I’m not getting what you’re saying?”
Lauren sighed. They were walking on a trail high enough in the mountains that the setting sun still illuminated the forest around them. It was already dark further down the mountain in areas too low to be hit by the sun’s increasingly horizontal rays. Lauren felt a tinge of apprehension at the prospect of descending the mountain in the dark, and then turned her attention back the nigh impossible task of getting Danny to see something differently.
“You’re always so focused on structures and representations,” said Lauren. “If you stop thinking about them for a second, it’ll be more clear.”
“I’m not entirely convinced you know what you’re talking about.”
Lauren stopped and glared at Danny.
“That’s a cheap tactic. You’re just trying to avoid letting go of your precious theories. Can’t you just think about this differently for two seconds, and then return to your precious world of representations?”
Danny, secretly affronted by Lauren’s implication of his intellectual immaturity, decided to press the offensive.
“You do understand that in ‘thinking differently’ about this, all I’m doing is adopting a different intellectual representation towards the matter at hand.”
Checkmate, thought Danny. Though still internally quaking at the ease with which Lauren was able to perceive his insecurity, Danny relaxed his shoulders and smiled at Lauren like they were playing a delightful game.
Incidentally, Lauren actually didn’t pick up on Danny’s feeling of weakness, and instead perceived a smug twerp who clearly thought too highly of himself. Breaking up isn’t out the question, she thought.
“Fine,” she said, and promptly turned around and continued up the trail.
After the last three months, Lauren knew Danny well enough to know the effect this response would have on him. Danny really did crumble remarkably quickly if he thought he had hurt her feelings. All she had to do was sufficiently “commit to the bit,” so to speak.
True to Lauren’s intention, Danny stood dumbfounded for several seconds. The term “jagweed” kept reappearing in his mind. What an utterly bizarre term, he briefly thought before compulsively turning the entirety of his mind towards relational reparations. How quickly a perceived checkmate turns against you.
“Lauren, I apologize,” said Danny after accelerating to catch up. “My last comment was aside the point. What were you saying about art again?”
And this point, the pair was crossing a boulder field, and Lauren took the opportunity to step onto a large rock, distinctly looking down at Danny. She crossed her arms and slightly narrowed her eyes, completing the effect.
“Are you actually going to listen to me this time, or are you just going to look at me, nod your head, and pretend like you’re listening?”
Danny, though feeling thoroughly chastened, noticed for the first time that Lauren’s left eye was slightly further from her nose than her right. Perhaps it was the combination of their relative positions together with the angle of the sun that gave light to this fact. Though it by no means detracted from her attractiveness, Danny quickly filed the observation under his mental cabinet of “Things to never say, under any circumstances.” A second-order analysis revealed that he was violating the implicit request she had literally just made, which he found equally ironic and potentially dangerous within the scope of the discussion. As such, Danny took a deep breath and then positively clamped his attention onto Lauren’s disapproving face.
“Yes, I’m listening,” he said.
Ironically enough, Danny had been making careful eye-contact with Lauren despite his flurry of distracted mental activity, and therefore she didn’t pick up on his instantaneous faltering of attention. As such, her irritation with the schmeag standing in front of her softened a bit; in fact, she was overtaken by a faint sense of amusement.
“Ok, good. But we’re losing light, so I’m gonna need you to listen and march at the same time. I know that’s hard for you.”
And without a backward glance, Lauren hopped off of the rock, began hiking, and launched into a lecture about the meaning of art. Danny stood watching her for a moment, and felt a slight chuckle take command of his throat. Heavens, she really is quite compelling. Then he dutifully hurried to catch up with her, straining his ears to catch what she was saying. It really can be cursedly difficult to hear someone who’s hiking in front of you.
“Ok, here’s what I’m saying,” Lauren began, “and I honestly thought you’d like this more, because I think it’s kinda like all the stuff you’re always talking about with representations. Ok. So when I was running yesterday, I was thinking about the word ‘meaning,’ as in the ‘meaning of life.’ And I was thinking to myself, ‘that’s kinda a sucky phrase, because it doesn’t feel like it’s even being used properly—’”
“Wait, hold on,” interrupted Danny, “What do you mean by ‘meaning,’ in this context?”
“That’s literally what I was getting to, if you’d stop interrupting me,” said Lauren with another backward glare, “But I guess it’s a fair question. Let me think about it.”
She stopped for a moment, breathing heavily, and thought about it.
“Ok, here’s what I think I mean. Imagine there are a bunch of kids playing in a room, and they’re breaking a bunch of stuff. Then the dad comes in and is like: ‘What’s the meaning of this?’ I’m talking about meaning in that sense. …does that make sense?”
“I suppose so,” said Danny, “so wait, it seems like you’re talking about ‘meaning’ as an associated explanation. Is that right?”
“Hmm, maybe? I think the idea of association is important for how I’m using ‘meaning.’ Like two things being associated with one another? …yeah I think that’s it. It’s like when you’re looking for the meaning in something, you’re pursuing associated information about the something. Does that make sense? But actually, you know what? I think it’s more general than information. And yes, I know I’m being vague about my definition of ‘information,’” said Lauren, countering a frequent source of intellectual incoherence between herself and Danny. “I guess without specifically defining ‘information,’ I think ‘meaning’ is more general than just having to do with information just because information seems too concrete to me. Like it doesn’t capture the emotions of the situation well enough. Ok, yeah so in talking about art—”
“Wait, hold on,” said Danny, “it’s hard to hear you. Let me go in front so I can hear you better.”
Having said that, Danny bounded around Lauren and continued forward. He squinted off to his right toward the sunset. Probably about 30 more minutes of light. Good thing we brought head lamps.
“Ok, sorry about that. Keep on going,” said Danny.
“You’re good. Yeah, so I guess I’m interested in why the idea of ‘art’ is so loosely defined. Like imagine trying to define ‘art.’ It’d be as hard as trying to define ‘love,’ or ‘joy.’ But what if you asked the question, ‘what is the meaning behind the Mona Lisa?’ Or maybe ‘what is the meaning behind a Rembrandt?’ It’s a weird question, but I think it’s easier than trying to define ‘art’ itself.”
“So I guess based on what you were saying earlier, you’re thinking about this in terms of associations, or associated explanations?”
“Yeah I guess so. And actually, yeah, I think that’s the right way to think about it. Maybe, at least. Like art is something that’s typically created, right? But, I mean, our brains are constantly forming associations between different concepts, emotions, structures, all of that. Like all the stuff you’re interested in.”
“Yup,” confirmed Danny.
At this point, Danny was getting an increasing sense that what Lauren was talking about could more simply be discussed within the framework of representations and entities, but it seemed like a tactical blunder to bring that up in this present moment, so he kept his mouth shut and let Lauren keep talking.
Lauren, for her part, was quite aware of what Danny was thinking, given that it seemed to be the only thing he ever really seemed to think about. That, and me. Ha. She allowed herself a silent smirk and continued describing her thought.
“Ok, so I think that’s getting close to what art actually is. This isn’t totally exhaustive, but you could say art is something that is created and is associated with a set of emotions.”
“I mean, yeah,” said Danny, frowning, “but isn’t that kinda …obvious? I mean, would anybody say that’s not the case?”
That statement would have been annoying to Lauren, but to her satisfaction she could tell that Danny was speaking purely analytically, which meant he actually was paying total attention to what she was talking about. As if that should be something that makes me happy. It shouldn’t feel like a battle to actually get his attention. Whatever.
“Yeah, I guess it’s obvious. But, I mean, it doesn’t mean it isn’t important. Emotions, desires, thoughts, sensations are all stuff that appear in consciousness at the most basic level, so it seems important that the certain creations we call ‘art’ have a pretty fixed set of emotions and sensations associated with them.”
“Wait, that actually is super interesting,” said Danny, again stopping briefly to check the position of the sun. “Hmm… yeah. It’s actually really interesting to think about pieces of art as carriers of a particular set of emotions. And actually, there really is something to be said about the fact that the piece of art itself was created by a person. Like for some reason you almost automatically want to figure out why the artist did what he or she did. Hmm… did you ever read the Mysterious Benedict Society?”
Lauren laughed. This is why she kept Danny around. It was fun to get him excited about something and watch him compulsively bump around between different subjects. “No, but I think I’ve heard of it. It’s that kids’ book, right?”
“Actually, it’s more of a young adult novel. I think my sister calls them YA novels. What a ridiculous acronym. But anyway, the villain is a dude called Mr. Curtain, and basically he has this machine that transmits thoughts around the world. But one of the most interesting parts about the book is actually how he packages information. So basically, he has this institute that’s set up to fill kids head with propaganda. Like they’ll be taught stuff like ‘the government is like a poisoned apple, and society is like a poisoned worm.’ Stuff like that. Anyway, after he’s brainwashed these kids, Mr. Curtain hooks them up into his machine, and then has them project thoughts like ‘poisoned apples, poisoned worms.’ It’s cool because even though it’s only those words that are transmitted to people, the connotations of the words themselves are also transmitted. So even though a kid might only be saying ‘poisoned apples, poisoned worms’ into the machine, they’re also projecting a bunch of anti-government propaganda.”
Danny fell silent for half a second.
“Wait, where was I even going with that?”
Lauren laughed again. It was probably a good thing she found this conversation amusing, because otherwise she and Danny would be entirely incompatible.
“I think you were talking about art being a carrier of emotions,” she said.
“Oh, yeah yeah yeah. That’s right. I guess I was thinking that art kinda becomes like the propaganda words from Mysterious Benedict Society. Like not in terms of societal decay, but in terms of carrier of meaning. But why would something like a piece of art be better for that than just any old thing you’d find in nature?”
“I think there’s something about the artist’s intention,” said Lauren. “Like I think you expect that if an artist is being genuine, they had some particular purpose in how they created their…creation. Even if it wasn’t totally conscious while they were creating it. Like the purpose, I mean. Unless you like believe that there’s a God that created everything with a particular purpose, then if you’re just looking at a scene in nature, there’s not a strong of a reason to think that it’s not all totally random.”
“Wait, yeah. That’s actually kinda weird,” said Danny, frowning again. “Why are humans so obsessed with purpose? Or I guess meaning. Yeah, why are we so obsessed with purpose and meaning?”
“I mean, isn’t that kinda obvious? Isn’t that the whole purpose of philosophy? Like basically trying to answer the basic question of ‘how should I live my life?’”
“No, I don’t think that’s obvious. You just basically said humans are obsessed with purpose because they’re trying to figure out how to live their lives. That seems circular.”
“What are you talking about? How isn’t that obvious? Ok, so I guess if you take a step back and look at the human experience, we basically have a set of experiences that are either perceived to be good, like happiness, or perceived to be bad, like pain. So then you’re basically trying to figure out what you should do to maximize the good and minimize the bad.”
“But what does that have to do with purpose? And I mean, we’re also kinda getting off track. We started out by talking about the purpose behind a piece of art, which I think is a different discussion than speaking about the purpose of a human being.”
They fell silent for several seconds. The summit looked like it was about four minutes away.
“Hold up,” said Lauren, stopping and shading her eyes, “are you seeing this sunset?”
Danny had been staring at the ground while thinking about their conversation, and experienced a minor jolt as he escaped his thoughts to return to the present. Looking up, he could see why Lauren had stopped. The sun was now at the very edge of the horizon, and appeared like a blood-red orb behind a distant mountain range. Equally compelling was the fairly thick blanket of clouds to the east. The red of the sun was bounding across the cotton-candy blue sky to paint the clouds with a delicious shade of pink. Those are the two colors on a sour gummy worm, Danny realized. Naturally, this only added to the effect.
Turning his gaze slightly downward, Danny looked more closely at Lauren, and experienced a second jolt as he realized just how beautiful she was. The same rays that illuminated the clouds to the east were playing across her face, which only accentuated her expression of quiet satisfaction and joy.
“Wait, stay right there,” said Danny. He bounded down to a slightly lower position where he could see a three-quarters view of Lauren against the clouds behind. Having found the proper position, he closed his eyes and took a long, deep breath.
“And what are you doing?” asked Lauren, somewhat bemused.
Danny opened his eyes, taking in the scene before him, once again.
“Perfection,” he said. “Absolute perfection.”
It was these sorts of things that informed Danny’s family’s decision that he was the most dramatic member of the bunch.
Lauren laughed, perhaps a bit nervously, then struck a pose with her hands on her hips thus becoming a caricature of a broadway model.
Danny laughed a well, and then ran past her back up the trail.
“Come on, let’s get to the top!”
For some entirely intangible reason, the scene of Lauren against the clouds had rapidly lifted Danny out of his prior contemplative state and had filled him with an altogether boyish energy. Coupled with the equally intangible (though carefully hidden) male desire to impress Lauren, Danny directed this burst of energy towards sprinting the rest of the way up the mountain.
Lauren, for her part, thought the display somewhat childish, though perhaps amusing. She most certainly had not experienced the same arbitrary burst of energy; in fact, she was feeling the altitude. As such, she proceeded upward at her previous pace.
Danny had exhausted his temporary well of energy with about 100 feet left to the top. However, given his latent desire to not look weak, he decided to press onward at his needlessly rapid pace. As could be predicted, Danny was so sufficiently winded upon reaching the top that he immediately crouched downward and thoroughly scrunched his face in a desperate attempt to avoid heaving. Thankfully, he narrowly avoided that fate and had roughly a minute to compose himself before Lauren herself summited.
Lauren, entirely oblivious to Danny’s self-imposed plight, had been taking the last several minutes to continue pondering the meaning of art. Upon reaching the top, she immediately began vocalizing her thoughts.
“You know, I was thinking about what you said. Like how humans focus on a piece of art in a different way than they would focus on some other thing. Even without knowing exactly why people do that, it’s interesting that a piece of art would become the focus of so many people’s attention.”
Danny, caught off-guard by a combination of the rapid return to conversation and an oxygen deficit, didn’t immediately grasp what Lauren was talking about.
“It’s what we were literally just talking about! I’m just saying that it’s interesting how famous pieces of art basically become the focus of intense meditation. Or maybe that’s the wrong word? You get the idea. It’s almost like everyone is convinced that the piece of art has meaning, and they’re all arguing and trying to agree upon what the meaning actually is. Or, I mean, everyone who actually cares. But anyway it’s almost like the whole point of the piece of art is to attract attention, and then the generations of viewers imbue the art with meaning that can be communicated and has value.”
At this point, Danny had re-centered his attention within the conversation.
“I don’t think that properly acknowledges the aesthetic value of art, but you do bring up an interesting point about how people effectively normalizing their collective opinion about the meaning behind a piece of art. I guess that’s also interesting to me on a functional level, because then motivated individuals can then use the particular piece of art to invoke a certain set of emotions in an audience, which can be used for political purposes. I suppose that’s just the essence of propaganda.”
Having both completed their respective thoughts, the pair watched as dusk faded into twilight, bringing with it the first indications of stars.
“I guess you did know what you were talking about.”
Lauren closed her eyes out of exasperation. Jagweed, she thought. And then: What a weird term.