Monday, January 30, 2006

Order & Indifference

I’m writing from New York, and what better place to finally reveal my long-awaited views on intelligent design! As I stood in Grand Central Station, watching the people hustle and bustle by, I noted—guess what!!-- a paradox. If you looked into the face of each person, he or she seemed to be boiling over with intention. Each person looked determined to get somewhere, to be somewhere, to do something critical to some large enterprise. Yet if you pulled back and looked at them again and in total, all their striding and dodging and bumping looked comical and senseless. Masses of anything—be it people, feeder goldfish, or balls in the playarea of a McDonalds—always look impressive at first and then silly. A mass, though it depends on lots and lots of parts, still makes those very parts seem inessential. Steal a plastic ball, and the ball bin can still be jumped in and fouled by some kid. A belly-up fish in the tank is hardly of note, and a simple Midwestern girl needing prodding and guidance through the crowd neither adds nor subtracts from the overall sense of it. Even her stupefied pauses and downhome commentary: “Where are all these people going? There can’t possibly be a point to all this hustle-bustle!” are smoothly subsumed within the crowd she doubts.

So is all this teeming the teeming of “creations” or is it the teeming of organisms produced by an unthinking chain of reactions? What’s interesting to me about intelligent design is that the reasons why people want to believe in it seems to conflict with the implications of the belief. If you want to believe in an intelligent designer, you want to believe because:
1. You want humankind to have the meaning inherent in being designed by a conscious force.
2. If there is a designer, he/she/it likely has a design—a plan—for us. There is comfort in knowing that anything seeming random to us isn’t—its simply a part of the plan that remains inscrutable to us. (And, we can reassure ourselves, perhaps inscrutability is part of the plan!)
3. If we have a designer, he/she/it wouldn’t create us just to destroy us. Believing in a creator is believing that there might be some after-death purpose for us. It is a way to reassure ourselves that our existence has meaning, and will therefore go on. It is a yearning for the infinite.

Fair enough! Who wouldn’t want to believe all that? The problem is, a creator—a fixed point of origin—is actually dependent on the exact OPPOSITE of the above.
The whole idea that we were created out of nothing at a particular moment is contrary to the notion of eternity or the infinite. In fact, a belief in intelligent design shows most acutely the human inability to comprehend the infinite, or to think beyond life/death terms. When people want to doubt intelligent design on an easy level, they simply ask: “Well, if there’s a creator, who created the creator? And who created the creator’s-creator?” And so on. For some reason, endless origins (or endless creators with small roles, which I suppose could describe evolution itself) that stretch back forever in time feels to us like no origin at all. Why is it that we want ONE creator, creating us (or the conditions for our existence) in ONE moment in time? Why not believe that our beginnings stretch back and back and back to pre-primordial slime, pre-Big Bang, pre-anything we know now? Why not want to believe that there was no one moment when everything began, but rather that the universe is, and always will be, ongoing? It seems to me that believing in no start to the universe, or no one moment of our creation, naturally leads to believing in no end to the universe—or us.

But when we say that life, or the world, began at one point, we are allowing that it could likewise end at a point. We are putting the universe in a frame of duration, yet if we really want “forever” we should avoid these terms completely. In some ways, this shows our inability—or, as I sometimes suspect, our unwillingness—to truly think of eternity. Meaning for human beings, unfortunately or fortunately, is inextricably dependent on the notion of time. An endless background of our creation doesn’t appeal to us because meaning, in a person’s life, happens in the moment and by the moment. So, of course, we can only think of a meaningful start to the world as happening in a certain moment and by a certain force’s will. But what this implies is that our meaning making is framed around duration: A start and therefore an end. A life and therefore a death. Moments have meaning for us, and eternity does not. If you believe in a creator, you are tacitly and rightly believing in the necessity of your own death. Think of it:

If you cannot conceive of, or be comfortable with, the idea that the world’s past/origins stretch infinitely back in time and do NOT finally originate at some creator or point of creation, then you probably can’t really accept (as much as you seem to want to) the corollary: that we too will, in some sphere of being, exist forever.

The reason to believe in intelligent design is that it is a comfort against death and the unknown of the afterlife, yet the premise of intelligent design necessitates time, beginnings, endings and therefore death itself. We want a fixed origin and an endless existence, but infinity is not borne of the finite.
I was watching Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man right before I left for New York, and a bit of the narration made me consider something else about intelligent design. Late in the film, right before Timothy Treadwell’s death at the hands of one of his precious grizzles, Herzog narrates something like this over a close up image of a grizzly’s face and eyes:
“When I look into the eyes of these animals, I see but a vague pursuit of food and nothing more. All I see is the vast indifference of nature: its essential cruelties, its innate brutality, its unforgivingness.” (This is my recreation of the quote, retaining the central point that nature is cruel and indifferent.) My first reaction to this was annoyance: its not exactly new to muse grimly at how brutal nature may be. Then I thought a little more about it: why is it that nature is described as “indifferent” and “cruel”? Is that why people find evolution so unfulfilling spiritually, because of its seeming indifference (mindless advancements of species) and cruelty (survival of the fittest, for one)? But why is nature considered indifferent at all, when, as ecologists will tell you, there is a balance and a cycle that preserves life? Of course, this is nature sans human intervention that I’m speaking of here. Nature seems anything but indifferent when you consider the inherent harmony and well-being of species in an unmolested natural landscape. If there are too many predators, a few will starve to rebalance things. Too much prey, and more predators might move into the area to compensate. Nature’s processes seem anything but indifferent; instead, they represent the height of attentiveness. Every insect has a purpose, every dead leaf nourishes, everything has a role. Evolution is merely a description of those roles as they changed--and changed species--over time.
I think that evolution and nature are considered indifferent not because they really are, obviously, but because they are too orderly. The order of nature and the order of evolution strike us as cold. Could it be that order itself is unappealing to humans in some way? I’d love to write a book called “Order & Indifference", the main thesis being that even though humans claim to strive for order, efficiency, properly used and gathered data, we actually are terrified by the spiritual lack we see in it. Machines are orderly, statistics are orderly, personal computers are orderly, but we have yet to commune with our motherboards when struck with a mortality crisis. There is more emotional and spiritual warmth in chaos and illogic: more comfort in the chaos of a creator, inexplicably appearing to create a world for an inexplicable reason, a creator strange enough to create life, death, and the afterlife, where the disembodied essences of all these personalities he painstakingly designed can gather in a state of bliss that for some unknown reason he withheld for our time on earth. Faith is likewise chaotic: it depends on believing, fiercely, in the unseen. The spiritual dependence on chaos is just another way that humankind is solipsistic: chaos reminds us of ourselves because it reminds of personality--the quirks and oddities and irrationality of the individual--while order reminds us of masses and machines and the perfect march of logic: the not-us.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Some Appealing Notions

Notion #1
The other day, I was telling my friend gleefully what a wonderful speech I’d give at his funeral. “I can’t wait for you to die,” I said “so I can really put on a show.” I had amused myself thinking of the conventions of funeral-speeches. The eulogist, regardless of how his or her relationship to the deceased was, must behave as if he’s speaking for all the bereaved. I.E. “We all know how much Sandy loved anything crocheted!” or “Bill never could turn down an opportunity to gamble.” The speechmaker must make a gesture like this for two reasons: First, to build a makeshift community of the mourners through a shared understanding. Secondly, the speech-maker is trying to show that the dead had a coherent self that everyone remembered in a similar way. Though the mourners may feel that they knew parts of Bill and Sandy beyond the crocheting and gambling, they can still be reassured that they’re grieving a person potent and complete enough to affect everyone’s memories--at least partially--the same way. At least a part of the dead was universally recognized by his or her loved ones. The eulogist’s task is to decide what part this was, and offer it up as proof that the dead was finite enough to create a shared experience in all the mourners.

Of course, sometimes the dead had such a major weakness or addiction that the speechmaker much acknowledge this to show that we, even in the magic presence of death, have no illusions. If Bill’s gambling was compulsive, the speechmaker might ruefully mention his “final gamble” (whatever it might be--a gamble with disease, with a bad driving choice whatever) as a way of nodding to his problem. This isn’t to insult or chastise the dead, but to give license for the rhapsodizing to come. Idealizing the dead seems all the more legitimate when prefaced with a mention of a flaw. What amuses me about all this is the thought of someone giving a eulogy that was completely obscure, yet delivered in this tone of “we all know this.” For example, imagine this short speech given with the confidence of someone who was sure you were on the same page:

“Elliot wasn’t an ethical man. He wasn’t a reasonable man. He wasn’t a guy you could clap on the should and say “how’s it going?” He didn’t invite familiarity. He didn’t invite flattery. He certainly didn’t invite love or even fond feelings. Elliot was, however, memorable. Memorable, that is, in the way of a fogbank. What we remember about Elliot, what we cherish about him most, is not his virtues but his ability to make the obvious seem obscure. We don’t remember fog because of what it looks like, but because of what it does to what we see. Likewise, we remember Elliot because of how remote he made the world to us, how his bafflement and personal chaos could take the edges off of everything. He really did give the finite a beating, huh?!”

Whoever this “Elliot” was, its hard to imagine that this depiction could be shared among the mourners. Two things interest me about the whole notion of a misguided eulogist, wrongly thinking he’s hit upon the general feeling about the dead. First, it subverts the goal of drawing up a firm image of the just-deceased. Nothing is worse than a diffuse impression of a dead person. If we can’t have their corporal substance, we damn well better have a substantial--and most importantly standard--description of them. We don’t need the ghostliness of ambiguity or the intangibility of nuance at a time like this. The other thing that interests me is the idea of a speaker feeling so casually assured that everyone agreed with, or even just apprehended, his unchecked subjectivity. But, as I’ve both seen and exploited, a tone of “I know you know where I’m coming from” can actually be more persuasive than actually coming from a sensible place. Very likely, a few of Elliot’s loved ones might start to recall his charming quality of loosening everything nailed down in the world. It is one of the memories we all share, though maybe just a bit curiously put.

Notion #2
My way of dealing with criticisms or accusations is this: I confess to each one, then explain why my attacker is actually noting a universal human quality, rather than something peculiar to me. “Yes, I’m manipulative. But who can avoid it? The argument could be made that all language is manipulative because it never conforms exactly to what we mean. Therefore, we have to strategize--”choose the right words” as they say--to have the intended effect. Our expressions are unavoidably deferred from our intentions, so everything we say and do must involve a large measure of plotting to deliver our real wishes. Frankness and openness are just a style of expression--still just as remote from the person’s real thoughts and feelings. ‘Frankness’ is just a more sanctioned mode of manipulation.” Or “Of course I’m hypocritical. What you see in me is nothing more than a microcosm of the failure of all human striving. We never are what we claim to be. Everything used to describe humanity: civilized, intelligent, progressing--can be easily countered by an example from history or the present. Come on. You know that.”

I often wait eagerly to be accused so I can challenge myself to get from the personal criticism to Universal Truth in the smallest time possible. Sadly, it seems that people have picked up on my enjoyment of this game and don’t criticize much at all. Now they’ve just resorted to “silent contempt. ” But when I accuse them of that, they insist upon denying it. Why don’t they just admit the truth, that they of course look upon me with silent contempt because how else can you look at your fellow man? Why don’t they just explain that human kind has always been a little self-loathing, so there must always be a little contempt in how we look upon each other?

Anyway, even though I use this “admit everything” strategy to deal with accusations, I don’t much like it when someone else does it. Once, I was making a criticism of a friend and he kept fessing up to everything I was saying even before I got to luxuriate in every in and out of my criticism. Frustrated, I blurted out: “You’re like a man being tried for murder who just keeps repeating ‘I never said I wasn’t a murderer. What’s all the fuss about?’ The thing is, just because you never said you weren’t a murderer doesn’t make it any less of a crime or any less heinous! Its not a defense! The point of the trial is not to determine whether or not you’re a hypocrite, but to decide if you committed a crime!”

As often happens, I became so delighted by my hypothetical situation that I abandoned the point I was trying to make to linger within it. There’s something really funny to me about somebody on the stand in a murder trial throwing up his hands and saying “I never said I wasn’t a murderer!” as if the whole point of the trial is just to give him that label. I can see this person so clearly…a ruddy, impatient type of guy, the type of guy that hates forms and officialdom and unnecessarily drawn-out doings…and when he utters his famous line, he says it in a way that makes law and justice and human reason and all that seem like pointless rigmarole. Why have all these people in this specially configured room, with these podiums and risers and things, why have all these labels: jurors, defense, prosecution, lawyer, why have all these funny symbols, this judges robe, this gavel, this sculpture of a blind chick with her balanced scales, why have all these official statements like “all rise” and “please approach the stand, counselor”, why have all this just to say I’m a murderer? I never said I wasn’t, goddamnit!

Monday, January 02, 2006

A Fresh New Reading of the Madness of Eternal Life!!

It's common knowledge that if you were to live forever, you’d eventually go mad. Simone De Beauvoir, Hawthorne, Oscar Wilde are just a few of the authors that have shown the folly and vanity of eternal life, though I’m sure there are more. But I, McFawn, think I have thought of a new reason, beyond the ones I’ve seen, for the madness of eternal life.
From my very brief look into eternal life, the common reasons for madness are these:
1.You become bored. After living out all your ambitions eventually, you’d run out of things to do.
2.You’d see too many loved ones die and that would eventually ruin your capacity for relationships. A human lifetime--fleeting enough as it is--would appear like a mere moment to you. So, you’d warn yourself “not to get too attached” to everyone you meet, much like a parent might give that warning to a child about a guppy.
3. You’d be alienated. Human ambitions and fears would look arbitrary and foolish. You’d sympathize with no one and no one could sympathize with you.

I agree with all these reasons. However, I think there is the new way of considering the madness of eternal life that might explain some madness in this life. Eternal life would really make you lose your mind because you’d no longer understand metaphors. Madness is the loss of metaphor-literacy. Before I get into the idea of “metaphor-illiteracy,” I’ve got to say a few things on metaphors themselves. All metaphors, in my thinking, are born of the unavoidable truths of human life. These can be broken down into simple dichotomies such as:

Life vs. Death---> (the arrow here indicates that all other metaphors are subsets of this one)
Nothing vs. Something
Power vs. Weakness
Inner vs. Outer
Knowing vs. Not-Knowing
I use metaphors to mean either literary metaphors--turns of phrase that use images etc to represent/explain something else. Or, metaphors can be a behavior-- a reply and representation of one of the above versus. A metaphor is basically a reaction to a truth in the from of symbol. But back to the person who lives forever, or "ForeverMan" (shorthand: FM). The worst part is that metaphors would lose meaning because the central truth of human existence would no longer apply. As I said in my “transience” post, life and death are so central that their tension gives birth to all sorts of metaphors and metaphorical actions. For example, the FM would have trouble even enjoying something like chocolate or sex. Chocolate is an indulgence, and a quick pleasure. The idea of indulging is a metaphorical response to death. To illustrate, someone might say “you only live once” as a justification for buying a particularly rich piece of cheesecake. To indulge in something that’s a little unhealthy, and is transient, is a way of saying: “I embrace the brevity of my existence, therefore I can take pleasure in other brevities, such as the quickly melting quality of this chocolate. Also, since my life is impossible to preserve, I will drop the absurd ruse of being “healthy” and eat this cheesecake, and--perhaps--I’ll request whip cream as well so the gesture won’t be mistaken. I know I’m going to die! No personal restraint will change that! Besides, what’s more “healthy” than a hard, level look at death in the form of sensory indulgence?” By this brief example, you can see both what metaphors refer to and why we need them. Most people would prefer the metaphorical act of eating chocolate to the explanation of its meaning. Although…what a wonderful absurdist comedy the world would be if we all talked like the above! But, metaphors are like jokes and therefore more powerful when they go unexplained, even to the person who uses them. It would certainly kill the exhilaration and abandon of eating cheesecake if you reminded yourself that you’re also giving an acknowledging nod to the Reaper in doing so.

But for our ForeverMan, the indulgence in treats is impossible. There is no indulgence without Death. The metaphorical life, as human life is, would elude him. Metaphors would not only lose power for the FM, they would become undetectable, unreadable, obscure. Metaphor would not exists for him. Everything would have a purely literal, and therefore maddening, existence. However feeble metaphors are, however little they do to actually illuminate or respond to any truth, they at least place life in a frame of meaning-making. They demonstrate the comforting and universal human desire to TRY to know. Human beings, regardless of how different from one another, all agree to try to know. That is our communion. But without death, the FM no longer recognizes human attempts at meaning. He sees no meaning, nor can imagine how one would try for it.

But I’m tired of explaining the FM’s plight. Let me end this post with a vivid description of the FM in an erotic situation. The FM has roamed the earth for 200 years now, so he is very early in his tenure of forever. He has sex occasionally, mostly trying to regain the excitement he once felt for it before he realized he would live forever. He has tried every sort of women, in hopes that variety would be thrilling. Oh, but its not. After fondling women of every size, age and hue, he realizes his mistake. The problem with infinite variety, he thinks, is that it’s infinite, and therefore reminds him of his own endlessness. He wants the singular, momentary experience of person, but every bit of flesh he sees seems to be part of an continuum of flesh and woman, each differing slightly but all part of a line-up that stretches on forever. This woman, with her mousey hair and hazel eyes and low voice is only a hair away from her variation, a slightly mousier, lower toned, brighter eyed woman. The FM is turned off by the thought. She is both an individual and expendable, but also a style of person that will reappear, slightly altered (just as a variation on the theme of Nathaniel Hawthorne appeared in this century as McFawn, who will no doubt be followed by a an Almost-McFawn. Poor McFawn thinks she’s so unique, but she’s really just casting of a person from a mold slightly chipped from overuse. She considers that slight flaw in her mold and making her “individuality“! HA!) They don’t break the mold on anyone, it just degrades. The FoveverMan is undressing as he thinks all this, and the woman sprawled on the bed looks to him like someone standing between two mirrors with her image repeating in all directions. Screw one, screwed ‘em all, he thinks and how he wishes that was a simple misogynist comment rather than a chilling metaphysical truth.

*P.S. Metaphor-illiteracy can also come from too strong a denial of death…even if you aren’t an FM. Beware. Nod to the Reaper every now and again or risk losing your basic hold on the human condition--METAPHOR! *