Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Considerations on Death

A. J. Grunthaler

One thing that we can all be certain of is that at some point—today, tomorrow, or in the not too distant future—every single one of us will die. And this is true not just for ourselves, but for every human being who has ever lived or is currently living. Although we can imagine a possible future in which technological advances extend life far beyond the limits that we experience today, it seems unlikely that our species will ever be able to prolong life indefinitely. In this sense death represents that ultimate and necessary culmination of our human experience. The meaning of life, in other words, cannot be separated from the meaning of death. 

Death is usually defined as the cessation of biological functions that sustain the life of a living creature. That seems pretty straight-forward in itself. But death is not just a matter of biology for members of our own species. It’s wrapped up with emotions, beliefs, and rituals that give death a significance that is far greater than most of the other events that occur in the lives of human beings. 

Objectively, death would seem to be the greatest of all the misfortunates that can befall any individual. It signifies the end to our human project—to all the dreams and plans we had for our lives. Given a choice, most of us would probably chose to prolong our lives, even if we had to endure considerable pain and suffering to do so, because with the continuation of life there is always the possibility that things can get better. Death, on the other hand, represents the termination of all of our hopes for this life. 

But does death actually represent the end of our human project, or is it simply the gateway to another possible form of existence? All of the great religions of the world posit the continuation of human existence in another form after death. The religions originating in the Middle East—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all ascribe to the belief that the soul (the non-material, animating spirit of the human being) continues on in the afterlife. Religions like Hinduism and some forms of Buddhism have a belief in reincarnation or rebirth—the idea that the self or the soul takes on another physical form after death. 

The idea that some aspect of our human personality or identity could continue on after the death of the body is the source of considerable consolation for many people. Perhaps this is the reason why we invest so much effort in devising dignified and often elaborate rituals at the end of life—funeral masses, wakes, shivas, cremation ceremonies, and the like. The goal of these rituals is certainly to celebrate the life of the person who has died, but they perhaps serve the even more important function of providing those who remain behind with the hope that the departed loved one still exists in some form. 

But we also must consider the possibility that the belief in continuation of life after death is a fantasy or illusion created by our species precisely because death is so terrifying to us. So instead of accepting that death represents the end of who we are, we create the myth of an eternal soul that somehow is able to live on after the body has ceased to function. For atheists death represents the complete and total oblivion of the self. According to this view when the body dies, our personal identity dies with it. 

Whether one believes in the continued existence of human beings after death or not, death traditionally was understood to be such a traumatic experience that in the past it was recognized that one needed to be prepared philosophically and emotionally for the reality of one’s own demise. This practice came to be known in antiquity and the Middle Ages as the ars moriendi—the art of dying. In the Middle Ages this practice often involved visiting charnel grounds where the bodies of the dead were allowed to decompose and the creating of gruesome works of art known as danse macabre (the dance of death) to remind Christians of the inevitability of death. 

Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

While today we might view the regular reflection on the inevitability of our own deaths as somewhat morbid, consider for a moment our contemporary attitudes towards death. 

In the past, people often died in their own homes, cared for until the end of life by family members. And after death, those same family members would wash and dress the bodies of their loved ones, which were then often laid out for viewing in the family living room. Aromatic flowers were customarily brought into the house to try, as much as possible, to cover up the smell of the rotting corpse. Those same family members might also have been responsible for digging a grave for their dead relative, putting the coffin in the ground, and covering it with dirt. 

Today, most people die in hospitals, cared for by total strangers. They’re embalmed, dressed, made-up, and laid out in funeral out by morticians. At cemeteries we have professionals now to dig graves, but it’s rarely customary any more for family and friends to be present when coffins are placed in the ground and covered with dirt. So once again, total strangers are paid to do this task. 

Far from being morbid, our ancestors probably had a more sensible and psychologically healthy attitude towards death. In the 21st century, we might try to delude ourselves that death is what happens to other people—to old Aunt Sally, to famous men and women in the obituary section of the local newspaper, or some child dying of malaria in Africa—but death, in fact, is what happens to all of us. We can’t escape it no matter how much we may try to delude ourselves to the contrary. So our best bet is to try to appreciate the reality and inevitability of death and to reconcile ourselves as much as possible with it.

After all, what alternative do we have?

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Meaning of the Meaning of Life

A.J. Grunthaler

One of the most fundamental and important questions in the discipline of Philosophy is “What is the meaning of life?” Maybe you’ve never asked this question in precisely the way I just framed it, but if you’re like most people, you’ve almost certainly reflected about the ultimate meaning of your life, even if you’re not fully aware that you have.

Perhaps, one night, while you were alone at home with nothing to distract you, a thought suddenly popped into your head, unlike any thought you may have had before. A crazy thought like this: “What’s the point of it all?” Believe it or not, most people—assuming they’re not completely shallow—will ask a question like this at some point or another during the course of their lives. And this is just another way of asking, “What is the meaning of life?” 

Even if we grant that life does indeed have meaning, another question arises when we consider whether this meaning is the same for all people or whether it varies from person to person. In other words, is the question of meaning objective (applies to all) or subjective (a matter of individual perspective)? If it’s the former, we might call this a “higher” meaning of life—the idea that life has a meaning that transcends our own beliefs, attitudes, and feelings about it. 

But if life does indeed have a higher meaning, this leads to another perplexing question: what exactly is the objective reality or condition that gives life this higher meaning? 

Most human being typically ask the question “Does life have meaning?” when they’re confronted with difficult times—when those they love are sick, suffering, or in pain or when they themselves are sick, suffering, or in pain. It’s at such times that some people begin to think about the possibility of the existence of some kind of Supreme Being or God who gives life meaning. If there is a God, then living according to his purposes (following his will, coming to know or love him, or living our lives according to his plan) would seem to fit the bill for a higher, objective meaning for all human life.

For most human beings, living in most parts of the world up to the present time, this belief in this existence of God—call him Brahman, Yahweh, or Allah, if you prefer—provided everything that was necessary to create meaning in life. Indeed, some form of belief in a Higher Power controlling the destiny of mankind has been part of our experience probably since our species began to develop the ability to engage in abstract thought. 

But what if there isn’t a God? What would that do to the question of meaning in life?

One possibility would be that we’d be forced to recognize that life is fundamentally pointless or absurd. After all, what could possibly be more absurd than to endure all the suffering and pain that are an inevitable part of human existence only to cap off our lives with the stark reality of death—which, in the absence of a God, ultimately means total oblivion. But, not just total oblivion for ourselves. In the end, all of our human projects will be swept away by time, until eventually even our species itself will disappear…as will our planet, our solar system, and possibly even the very universe itself. Confronted with the reality of such oblivion, human life cannot help but seem a bit pointless, can it?

But, even if life doesn’t have a higher meaning or purpose, does this automatically mean that our human lives must be fundamentally pointless or absurd? In fact, we in the West are already living in what is commonly called a post theistic age—an age, in other words, in which belief in God seems fairly unimportant for many people. In fact, the number of people describing themselves as atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated with any major religion has been creeping upward since the dawn of the 21st century, making “non-believer” the fastest growing religion in the United States. 

And yet despite this lack of belief or interest in the existence of God, many individuals seem to find meaning in a whole host of significant activities that are part and parcel of our ordinary human lives. We find meaning in relationships with family, friends, and lovers; we find meaning in the simple pleasures of life and in the beauty—both man-made and natural—that surrounds us; and we find meaning in living lives of virtue for its own sake, rather than out of any external compulsions . We haven’t lost a sense of meaning in the absence of God: we’ve discovered that meaning all around us. Admittedly, this isn’t the kind of transcendent, objective meaning that theists think is necessary to provide purposefulness and value to our human lives. But it is meaning nonetheless. 

Whether our lives have one objective meaning or multiple meanings that vary from individual to individual, the question of the meaning of life is one that is intimately connected with our very humanity. Members of no other species ask whether their lives have meaning or not. In fact, one could argue that it is our very ability to inquire about the meaning of life that separates humans from all other creatures inhabiting this planet.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Ultimate Question....What's Your REAL Story?

In the past on this site, we've had debates about the ultimate narrative of the human condition ("Your Story," if you will).  There are essentially two main stories that we human beings tell about why we are here and where we are eventually going--the theistic story and the scientific story.  There are other stories that human beings have told as well throughout our history (existential, nihilistic, pantheistic, panentheistic etc.), but these seem to be the two big options.

The question that you should ask yourself is which story do you accept a the true human narrative and why.  This has major implications for the way you live you life and how you view human relationships and human society.

Here are the two big stories.

  1. The universe and everything in it was created by an all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-loving Supreme Being (SB). From before time began, this Being knew that you would come into existence and had a very special plan just for you. You are precious to Him, because you are, in fact, one with Him, and his love for you is constant and all-enduring.
  2. Your life has ultimate meaning because it is part of the SB’s ultimate plan for mankind. This plan, furthermore, has been revealed through the SB’s word as it exists in the sacred texts of your particular faith tradition. All you have to do is follow the blueprint for your life as it has been revealed through this sacred text and interpreted by the SB’s anointed ministers and teachers and you will experience happiness in this life and salvation in the next.
  3. During your life, you may experience suffering and pain, but these are merely tests to see if you are worthy enough to receive eternal life. Assuming you endure your suffering with equanimity, follow SB’s blueprint for your life, and remain faithful, you can be assured that, despite any adversities you experience, you will receive an eternal reward in the next life. The heavenly bliss that you will experience in the next life, in fact, will make even the most exquisite pleasures of this life pale by comparison.
  4. Of course, you have also been created with the gift of free will and can use the freedom you have to transgress the SB’s law, reject his love, or engage in despair about your condition. If you do this, you will experience misery in this life and unspeakable torment in the next (i.e., eternal separation from the SB, the source of all love and goodness). 
  5. The world will come to an end, but the faithful who are part of the SB’s chosen people (i.e., the elect) will continue to enjoy supreme bliss with the SB in heaven for all eternity.

  1. You were born into this life with no control over where you were born, to whom you were born, or in what social and economic conditions you were born.  You couldn’t decide to stay in the womb rather than being thrust out into the world naked and screaming, and once you were born, you pretty much were handed a dealt deck in terms of your genetic make-up and your environment.   If you were very lucky, you weren’t born in a war zone or to abusive parents or with a life-threatening disability or mentally incapacitated. 
  2. For approximately 18-25 years of your life, you grew physically and developed, to a greater or lesser degree, the intellectual, psychological, and social skills needed to navigate your way through life and find your place within human society.  
  3. For much of the rest of your life, you put the skills you learned to use working in some kind of job—in all likelihood, one that you didn’t enjoy very much or that didn’t pay you the kind of salary that you thought you deserved.  The money that you earned from working, however, enabled you eventually to leave your parent’s home and pay for those items necessary for survival (food, clothing, housing) and those that contribute to human felicity (cars, Iphones, designer handbags, etc.).
  4. Like all animals, you have a built-in desire to procreate and to spread your gene pool as widely as possible to ensure the survival of the species.  If conditions were right, you may have found a suitable partner with whom to produce offspring.  You would then spend the most productive years of your mid-life providing for those offspring, attempting to ensure their survival into adulthood, and training them—with greater or lesser success—to become autonomous individuals in their own right.
  5. If you were lucky, you didn’t die accidentally, perish from a disease, or get killed, and made it into old age.  At that point your body began to break down, you got sick, you suffered physically (and perhaps emotionally as well) and eventually died.  Within moments after your death, your body began to decompose, and within a few years, almost nothing was left of you at all.
  6. Within one or two generations of your death, you were forgotten by every other human being on the planet (unless you were one of the ridiculously small percentage of human beings who were skillful or lucky enough to make an impact on human history, in which case, you might be remembered a bit longer).  Your grandchildren will probably only have fleeting memories of you and their children will only know who you were through dusty, old photographs that have been left behind (if they haven’t already been tossed away by a careless descendant, that is).
  7. Within a relatively short amount of time—planetarily speaking—humanity itself will be destroyed through some kind of global cataclysm or pandemic and nothing will remain of our species.  At some point in time a new species may evolve from the bugs that have managed to survive, but this species will probably have little or nothing in common with our own.  Eventually, the planet, and even the universe itself, will simply cease to exist, and all that will remain will be the infinite void.  

From:  Michael S. Russo, ed. The Problems of Philosophy.  New York: SophiaOmni Press, 2012.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

It's All Bullshit!

by Alex Romeo
Anarchist and Performance Artist

This is my contemporary spin on the ideas of one of my favorite philosophical schools from antiquitythe Cynics.  They were the bad asses of the ancient world  and we still have so much to learn from them.  

As the philosopher Harry Frankfort writes:  “One of the most salient features of our culture is that there is so much bullshit. Everyone knows this. Each of us contributes his share. But we tend to take the situation for granted.”  (“On Bullshit”)

American society is pervaded by bullshit.  It affects just about every seemingly important aspect of our lives—politics, religion, family life, education, the arts…you name it.  And bullshit in American society is so omnipresent that there seems to be no escaping it.

From the moment that we are born to the moment that we die, we have purveyors of bullshit telling us how we should live our lives, what kind of education we should have, who we should associate with, who we should love, how we should raise the children that they automatically assume everyone should produce, even how we should die.    

These masters of bullshit have determined the exact formula for “happiness” in life:
  • Always do what you’re told by “legitimate” authority (parents, teachers, preachers).
  • Obey the rules of society even when the rules seem petty, capricious or even unjust.
  • Go to school simply to get a job simply to make money.
  • Get married to a respectable partner (attractive, professional, and of the opposite sex), and spawn 2.5 children who have the same potential for upward mobility that you do.
  • After the kids are born, try to pretend at least to believe that there is some kind of higher power that rules over the universe (preferable the good old Judeo Christian God) and go through the motions of pretending to worship that higher power…if only for the sake of the kids!
  • Make enough money to (1) get a house with at least four bedrooms and two baths in the “nice” part of town, (2) have at least one SUV park conspicuously in your driveway, and (3) go on regular vacations with the kids to Disneyworld or some other equally vapid amusement spot. 
  • By the age of 40, your main focus in life should be to assure that you always have more than your neighbors.  This is the sacred rule of American society.
  • Never admit that your life feels empty and pointless, because then you’ll have to do something constructive about changing it.
  • Die without being too much of a burden to anyone else (i.e., in a hospital, cared for by professionals)

If you do all this, the masters of bullshit assure us that you can’t help but be happy…and, if you’re not, it’s your own damned fault.

What utter and complete nonsense.   Following these sorts of rules is certainly possible, but only at the cost of your soul.  You’ll become fat, lazy shallow, stupid, and self-absorbed just like the vast majority of Americans who are too blind to see through the bullshit around them.

So what’s the solution?

Scorn and rebellion. 

Make it a point in your life to ridicule and reject everything that the purveyors of bullshit tell you is so very important in life.  Scorn is your weapon:  use it like a warrior entering battle against the forces of evil.  Mock those who dare to tell you how you should live your lives and spit on their disgusting bourgeois platitudes.  Once you’ve convinced yourself that all social rules, norms, and values are mere bullshit, you are half-way on the road to liberation:  your mind is now free of the chains dragging it down.

But something more is still required.

You have to start thinking—perhaps for the first time in your whole goddamn life—about how YOU want to live, about what will truly bring YOU happiness and meaning in life.  This is where you become really dangerous.  This is where you become the ultimate societal rebel and outlaw.  For a society like ours—so corrupt, so unjust, so vicious—can’t survive unless all of its citizens buy into the bullshit it spews and live their lives in sterile conformist fashion.

Once you start to say, “No fucking way” and you begin to live life the way you really want to, you become the enemy of all the purveyors of bullshit.  Your mommy will ask why you’re not already married at the age of 30, your friends will make fun of you because you don’t have a high-paying job like they do, the high priest at the temple will point his finger at you and call you “heretic”.

So what!  You can handle it.  And once you become liberated from all the bullshit of our society, then you will truly be a force to be reckoned with.  You’ll stand tall, armed with the knowledge that YOU are living YOUR life in a way that is totally natural and harmonious to YOU.  At that moment you become like a god among men—someone truly worthy of being admired for taking total responsibility for his or her own life.

But you won’t do this will you, because you’re so terribly afraid.  You’re afraid to reject the bullshit that is swallowing you up and become a true rebel.  And so you will live your life like all the other bloated, silly, bores around you and die never knowing what might have brought you true happiness.

How terribly sad.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Two Jesuses

I'll readily admit that I'm a serious Bill Maher fan.  Every now and then Maher completely nails it, as he recently did in his analysis of the two Jesus--the real one and the Supply Side Jesus that libertarians seem to worship.  

Yes, Maher certainly has a liberal bias.  The question is whether he's right in his claim that there is a fundamental contradiction between advocating a libertarian economic philosophy--one that celebrates "wealth creators" (i.e., the rich) and denigrates the poor--and being a follower of the fellow depicted in the Christian gospels.

You can decide the answer to that question for yourself.... 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Ben Carson was Right (But Not for the Reason He Thinks)

by Michael S. Russo

Much to my own surprise I find myself in agreement with a position made by Republican presidential contender Ben Carson. Last week, Carson got into a heap of trouble when he stated, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” Expanding upon his remarks, Carson later said a Muslim should not be president because his or her faith would be inconsistent with the Constitution, but suggested that his opposition would apply to any religion that had tenets which would interfere with a president’s abilities to carry out his constitutional duties. 

The firestorm that erupted because of these remarks in the media was predictable. On the surface what Carson seemed to be advocating was blatant religious discrimination. In fact, Article VI of the US Constitution specifically states: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

So how on earth can anyone—and in particular a self-professed progressive like myself—possibly support a position that seems so morally problematic? 

My agreement with Carson’s statements is based upon my understanding that the founding fathers of our nation were products of the Enlightenment and established a government grounded in what they considered rational principles. First and foremost, they believed in the idea of the basic political and economic equality of human beings—a principle that our nation would expanded upon in the 20th century by recognizing the equal rights of women and minorities. They believed that tolerance for diverse viewpoints was essential to functioning democracy and thus emphasized freedom of speech and press. Having liberated themselves from the control of a snooping, intrusive government, our founders also advocated the right to privacy, which means that people have the right to live any way they so choose provided that they don’t interfere with other people’s rights to do the same. Finally, they established an unequivocal right for people to practice the religion of their choice without interference and rejected the idea of any state religion. 

These are not religious principles: they don’t exist in any sacred text that I know of. They’re rational principles—fundamental tenets of political life that our founders thought were absolutely essential to the healthy functioning of any political community. They are also principles that arose out of the Enlightenment, a period in which human beings rejected blind ideology and looked to reason and rationality as tools for organizing government. For products of the Enlightenment like our Founding Fathers, truth was not found in sacred texts or in the pronouncements of religious authority, but in the rational mind’s ability to uncover these truths logically and scientifically.

Unlike Ben Carson and other conservatives who view the Constitution as a sacred document inspired by God, I have no trouble with a president who doesn’t agree with everything in the Constitution (the Second or the Fourteenth Amendments, for example). But I would have problems with anyone running for President who doesn’t understand the basic Enlightenment principles which are the cornerstone of modern Western political philosophy. I would also never support any candidate who thinks that whatever “sacred book” he or she follows should be the foundation upon which to organize political and social life in this country and who takes the words in that sacred book literally. 

With the exception of the Pali Canon—the “bible” of Buddhists—I know of no sacred text of any of the world’s major religions that does not have some crazy talk about the subordination of women, the killing of gays, the support of slavery, and the persecution of non-believers. It’s fundamentalism, therefore, that would seem to be the disqualifier for running for President, not rigid devotion to the Constitution (which is itself another form of literalism and fundamentalism). If it’s true, as some scholars of religion suggest, that Islam by its very nature is a fundamentalist religion—in other words, that it views the Koran literally as the word of God as dictated directly to the Prophet Mohammed—then how indeed could one be a President and a Muslim without rejecting many of the guiding principles of the sacred text of Islam? 

But this same principle would apply to any other fundamentalist religions as well, including, but not limited to, Evangelical Christianity, Orthodox Judaism, Mormanism, and Scientology. Adherents of all these sects reject the basic principles of the Enlightenment upon which the United States was founded and are forced to accept many of the toxic, antidemocratic ideas within their sacred texts as literal truth. If a Muslim shouldn’t be President, then neither, I’m afraid, should any current Republican candidate, because they are all religious fundamentalists to one degree or another.

Please note that I didn’t say that one couldn’t be a religious believer and be president. Roman Catholics, Liberal Protestants and Jews, and many Buddhists, do not necessarily have literalist interpretations of their sacred texts. They accept that their scriptures must be read historically, and that the truths contained within them can be interpreted allegorically or metaphorically. They also have no problem using reason, logic, and scientific evidence as bases for organizing society. There seems to be no incompatibility, therefore, between the practice of these religions and the holding of high office in a country like the United States. 

So, I’m all for Bernie Sanders (a non-practicing Jew) being our next President, but Ben Carson (Seventh-Day Adventist fundamentalist), I’m afraid, just won’t cut it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Debate on Religion from True Detective

by Michael S. Russo
Molloy College

I’ve begun watching the first season of the HBO series True Detective and I have to confess that I’m greatly enjoying the compelling story lines and complex characters in the series.  But even more than that, I’m really intrigued by the fabulous dialogue, written by Nic Pizzolatto.  It certainly came as no surprise to me to discover, as I did recently, that Pizzolatto was a former philosophy major at Louisiana State University, because the series, perhaps more than any other I’ve seen in a long time, is chock full of philosophical ideas at every turn. 

The third episode in particular blew my mind with its fairly sophisticated treatment of theism and organized religion (see the clip below).  To set the scene up, two detectives, Rust Cohle (played by Mattew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) are investigating a ritual murder that leads them to an outdoor evangelical service.  As they listen to the preacher give his sermon, Rust, an atheist and skeptic, shares his cynical views about the nature of religious belief to his fairly devout colleague, Martin, who feels compelled to offer a defense of religion.   As the scene plays out, we see these same characters later on as they continue to reflect on the debate that occurred between them a decade earlier.  

From Rust’s perspective, those who believe in the existence of a supreme being are basically pathetic, irrational suckers who are so fearful of life that they are willing to accept ridiculous fairy tales as truth.  Martin, on the other hand, sees religion as a positive element in society, without which we couldn’t survive as a species. 

Rust’s position is basically a contemporary spin on the psychological critiques of religious belief developed by the great 19th century “Masters of Suspicion”—Nietzsche, Marx, and Freud.  Although their positions on religion differ slightly, all three see the origins of religious belief in fear of the sufferings of this world and anxiety over the inevitability of death.  Because we are basically cowardly, weak and childish, we create the illusion of a benevolent father figure (God), who loves us unequivocally and who offers us the soothing balm of eternal life with him after death.  True maturity, these thinkers argue, demands that we learn to accept the world as it truly is—full of pain and suffering, Godless, and terminal—and start taking our lives here and now much more seriously.

Martin response is more sociological in nature than theological.  Notice he never argues directly for the existence of God or the truth of religious belief, but instead makes the claim that we need religion for three reasons: (1) It’s a binding force, enabling some semblance of community to exist among individualistic human beings; (2) It keeps us from acting on our more vicious natural instincts by instilling in us the fear of divine punishment; (3) It helps us to function in everyday life, by enabling us to overcome the existential fear that all human beings—even atheists—possess and which otherwise would cripple us.

What is missing in this debate is a truly theological or philosophical defense of religion of the kind that we find in great theistic thinkers like Anselm, Aquinas, or even Dostoyevsky.  The only remotely theistic argument in the scene is the one made by the preacher, who seems to appeal to exactly the kinds of fearful, narcissistic longings that Rust criticizes so well.   So we’re left in the end with two very cynical options:  (1) religion is basically a con game that needs to be rejected outright, though there may be nothing positive in the end to take its place (Rust’s position) or (2) Religion needs to be embraced, not because it’s necessarily grounded in anything true, but because a world without it would be too horrible to contemplate (Martin’s position).    

Perhaps the absence of a strong theistic defense of religion in the series is intentional.  I don’t know what Nic Pizzolatto’s own views on theistic matters are, but it could be that he gets the religious zeitgeist of the times pretty well.  In the end, we don’t really give a damn whether something (i.e., God, the afterlife, original sin, etc.) is true or not.  The only legitimate question for us seems to be “does it work for me?”  If I feel better about my life by believing in a Supreme Being, then  I’ll believe in one.  If I think that it’s necessary for society to be grounded in religious institutions in order to function effectively, then  I’ll support organized religion.  But when religion suddenly starts to seem like something bogus to me, or when it no longer seems to fulfill its pragmatic function in society, then I’m going to ditch it like a handful of smelly dung. 

So maybe, like the characters in True Detective, we don’t really care about religious issues at all.  All we really care about is feeling good.  And if religion makes us feel good about ourselves, then it automatically is valid; and if it makes us feel badly about ourselves then it is just as assuredly invalid.  But, if this is all that religion really represents to the theists and non-theists alike, it seems to me a fairly silly, superficial thing….a kind of spiritual pop psychology for those who lack the ability to think critically and rationally about the human condition.

Or am I, like the main characters in True Detective, missing some important piece of evidence here?  

Sunday, July 5, 2015

On the Love of Books

I came upon the following sentiment in the New York Times Magazine and it seemed to capture my own feelings about why physical books are so important:

Reading on-screen tempts us to see things only through the pinhole of our immediate curiosity.  I don’t mean to sentimentalize the Reading of Books, but as a practical matter, when you hold a book in your hands, it is very different from what happens when you are [reading something on] a glassy, featureless screen.  Online, your experience is personalized, but it is also atomized, flattened and miniaturized, robbed of its landscape.  Physical books require you to literally hold some of the context of what you are reading, and that is a crucial dimension of understanding.”  (Maria Bustillos)
Most of my well-educated friends have abandoned physical books and have been reading almost exclusively on Nooks or Kindles, or Ipads.  In recent years, I’ve gone in the complete opposite direction:  not only have I rejected digital texts completely, but I now buy only those books that I can get in handsome hardcovered version.  These are usually first or second edition books with clean pages, tight bindings, and unmarred jackets.  I search for the books I want on Amazon and buy used editions that usually cost less than either an e-version or paperback version of the book.

There’s nothing quite like the pleasure involved in holding a beautifully-made book in your hands.  I actually think that it makes the act of reading infinitely more pleasurable than reading the same text in an inferior print or digital version.

I’ve decided that I only want books around me that I know I will want to re-read in my old age—in the twilight years between retirement and death.  To this end, I’ve been ruthlessly selling my paperbacks, worn hardcovered editions, and those books that, while considered classics, I know that I will never read (sorry Herman Melville).

In my dotage, I see myself in a large spacious room, surrounded by wall-to-wall bookcases, each of which is filled with sumptuous editions of the works that I love.  Shakespeare is there of course, along with Kierkegaard, Jane Austen, Seneca, and Henry James….but so is John Kennedy O’Toole (A Confederacy of Dunces), J.R.R. Tolkien (Lord of the Rings), and of, course, Helene Hanff (84 Charing Cross Road, the ultimate book about lovers of beautiful books).

As I picture my own death, I’m reading an old favorite—Heller’s Catch 22, perhaps, or maybe Nietzsche’s Zarathustra—in a typically handsome edition.  As I near the end of the book, my heart simply stops and I slump forward, my bald head resting falling gently onto the pages of the book I have been reading. 

Could there possibly be a better way to go?

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Inferiority of the Self

“The human individual lives usually far within his limits; he possesses powers of various sorts which he habitually fails to use. He energizes below his maximum, and he behaves below his optimum. . . . it is only an inveterate habit -- the habit of inferiority to our full self.” (William James, The Energies of Man)

I came upon this quote by William James recently, and it struck me that the existential crisis that James described in the early 20th century is even more of a problem today than it was in his own time. 

How do we fall prey to the “habit of inferiority to our full selves” in the 21st century? I can't help thinking that our preoccupation with the seductiveness of technology is what is preventing us from realizing our true potentials as human beings. We’d rather make quips on Facebook or text one another about some inane topic than actually embrace life in all its messy complexity and grandeur. 

Cicero describes the most meaningful human relationships in terms of seeing ourselves reflected in the face of the other. If that's true, then many human beings probably don't have deep relationships at all, because they hardly ever spend enough time just being present to their fellow human beings. The use of 21st century forms of technology—the cell phone, the computer, the Ipad—creates an artificial separation between human beings that makes it impossible to see ourselves reflected in the other. And without access to the “mirror of the self” that the other represents, it is very difficult—if not impossible—to mature as a human being. 

The same is true with our disconnection from nature. Time alone in nature offers human beings the opportunity to reflect on the meaning of life and our connection to the planet as a whole. By separating us from nature, technology, therefore, stunts the kinds of introspective musing that makes philosophical wisdom possible.

I’m not trying to suggest that we can or should revert to a pretechnological society: that would neither be possible nor beneficial at this point. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognize that the benefits of any form of technology always come at a cost. And the price we may have to pay for our overdependence upon contemporary forms of technology may be the inability to develop a truly mature sense of self.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Humane Punishment?

by Michael S. Russo
Molloy College

I had always assumed that one of the main goals of our criminal justice system was to try to rehabilitate criminal offenders so that they could once again become productive members of the larger society.   This becomes a significant issue in a country like the United States, which incarcerates more of its citizens than any nation on the planet (see chart below).  We lock up more of our citizens per capita than even Russia or China—countries which certainly are not known for their enlightened social policies.

I’m not going to address the question of whether the reason for such high incarnation rates in the United States has to do with the fact that we’re one of the only countries in the world to turn our prisons into for-profit enterprises.  There are certainly those who argue that we have a “Prison Industrial Complex” in which there is unending need to maintain prison populations at elevated levels to ensure profits for the corporations that run them.   This is a question that deserves its own post, so I’ll put it aside for now.
Instead, I’ll assume that our elected officials are sincere in their desire to see fewer of their fellow citizens behind bars and to provide those who are imprisoned with the rehabilitation they need in order to succeed once they’ve served their prison sentences.  But, if rehabilitation is indeed the aim of our criminal justice system in the United States, then we are failing miserably at achieving this goal.  A recent study of recidivism rates in the United States shows that within five years, three-quartersof released prisoners are rearrested.  Any company that had a 76% failure rate would go out of business almost immediately, and yet we continue to use the same dumb approaches to incarceration year in and year out in our American prisons.
But is there another approach that we might want to consider instead, which might actually improve recidivism rate and provide those imprisoned with an environment that can serve them better when they are released into the larger society? A recent article on the approach taken in Norway’s Halden Prison seems to offer just such an enlightened alternative. 

The question that we have to ask is whether such an approach would work in the United States and would it lead to more preferable rehabilitation outcomes than the dysfunctional system we currently have in place. 

Read the article: