“Having a brain and not thinking is like having a hand without fingers.” Sam Harris.
“many people are walking around unwittingly with another’s ideas or memes in their head” Sue Blackmore.
“is this your idea man or is it someone else’s?” Krishnamurti.
“some people would sooner die than think” Bertrand Russell.
“the use of the intelligence and the critical faculties are inseparable from angst, conflict, doubt” Christopher Hitchens.
Thinking, argument and disputation is not useful but essential to progress. Not only as individuals but as a society and as a species. Is there though limits to thinking? To disputation? To the dialectical method? It is vital but is it always sufficient on all matters? Is there some questions, some problems or spiritual yearnings that lie beyond the scope of rational, critical analysis?
To ask such questions is of course to beg them. For we are attempting to answer them by the process of thinking about them. So on Tuesday the 4th of November the moment I became conscious, my mind began its thought cycle. Thinking about future events, repeating solutions I came up with to last nights private arguments. The idea or thought or memory emerges slowly almost imperceptibly like a flower or weed sprouting from a seedling. The thought arises, I recognise it and attach to it and fly off into a extended tour through my consciousness . Its not so much thinking but repetition. Almost as if the constant repeating of sayings, visualising reactions to situations is a balm or bad habit or a confabulation. An unceasing narrative that gives my life drama, importance a sense that there is a I.
This is of course one of the reasons I meditate or rather practice mindfulness. The exactness of being present in the moment and experiencing each sensation as it is. I practiced for about twenty minutes after getting up. I’m getting “better” at it. Your actions take on a serene flow, a suppleness. Your powers of attention and awareness towards your body, your thoughts and feelings and external phenomenon is heightened. Your concentration is improved and your ability to precisely notice things about your self is developed. Certain patterns of thought and perception, little quirks and oddities noticed. Like ways you wash your face or butter your toast or thoughts of past memories that the smell of coffee brings. Mindfulness is not at all like self-consciousness with its feelings of anxiety and doubt. No its that you simply observe the arising of thought and sensation, notice and label your thinking. Rather than “I am angry” “this body is feeling anger” Observing without an observer, thinking without a thinker.
Later when I was in Belfast to meet a friend I got this recurring impression. As I walked past the numerous coffee shops hosting lawyers, bankers and other assortments of young professionals. I saw a large sign stuck to the window that read. “Your best Neighbourhood corner store.” The choice of the word neighbourhood was strange, it has American connotations and not something that is not normally used in our vocabulary. So with this, the coffee shops, the men in suits, the minimalist asexual hair salons, the variety of life that passed me by. I got a feeling of being in America, in New York. The greatest of cities and no doubt getting ready for election night with the chance at cathartic relief with an Obama win. It stirred within me that profound yet trite knowledge that there is billions of people on the planet getting on with their lives at this very second on this moment without being aware of either me or me of them.
Imagine also all the people of history. What must it have felt being the last of the Mayans? The last of the Greenland Norse witnessing the collapse of your society and the only way of life that you know? Or a young man gazing out into the pacific ocean from the remote Easter Island hundreds of years ago? For thousands of years humans have fought, lived and died, have loved and lost and suffered shocking, inexplicable natural disasters. Experiencing the mysterious deaths of loved ones whose reasons only modern medicine would understand. The majority of life so far and for the majority of people still, live under the aegis of the most abysmal ignorance. I often consider our teeming loneliness on this planet, on this little pale blue dot. In the middle of nowhere with nothing out there. This is what it must have felt like to those lonely souls of antiquity.
I sat down at city hall, waiting for my friend to arrive. Every time I see the Victorian nature of it I think of the similarly looking building in Baltimore’s The Wire. The site of which houses the mayor and is the base from which many dubious and nefarious schemes are plotted and executed. As I waited I started to read from Jonathan Glover’s Humanity a Moral History of the 20th Century. It begins with something called Nietzsche’s challenge. Nietzsche of course dramatically and contradictorily proclaimed that God was dead. How can a non existent entity die? Nietzsche like a good fundamentalist Christian of which he was rebelling from believed that without God there was no morals. You were free to decide for yourself. You were “free” to self-create yourself. Nietzsche, Glover writes did not like Darwin but saw in his theory a confirmation of his world view which was struggle, hardness and cruelty. When we talk of Social Darwinism we should really talk of Social Spencerism as it was Herbert Spencer who advocated pulling the rug of compassion and charity for the suffering and improvised. Spencer would interpret this as natural and good for the species, Nietzsche would have agreed with this. Though I doubt that Nietzsche got his views from Natural Selection applying them callously like Spencer and hence committing the Naturalistic fallacy. (that is what occurs in nature is morally right or ethically justified).
Glover rebuts Nietzsche by rightly pointing out that although God may not exist and that the moral law may not be as self evident as it once was it does not follow that cruelty, strife and selfishness proceed from it. Others peoples ideas of self-creation may be compassion, charity and tolerance. I first seriously encountered Nietzsche’s writing in Will Durant Story of Philosophy. I found his views adolescent and callous, it was asking for trouble. The impression I got of him is that much of his writing was a guilt induced rancour when young and unable to participate in a war with his comrades and losing the chance at marriage. His views on women and hence “feminine” qualities turned particularly caustic. Some of his views stuck me as nothing more than the private and hectic writings of a forlorn, sexually vexed fourteen year old.
It reminded me of nothing more than Sayyid Qutub. The man who would “unsettle” Islam. Who is required reading for every aspiring Islamist. Another chaste and puritanical virgin who’s bitter views on America, women and western culture in particular have shaped the Islamist psyche. He is Bin Laden’s favourite philosopher and perhaps is to him what Nietzsche was to Hitler.
My friend was late. I paused and looked up at the thousands of people around me. I had just finished reading anecdotes under the section the Festival of Cruelty. Iraqi political prisoners under Saddam being thrown into tubs of acid called the “swimming pool”. South American junta’s torturing prisoners by attaching electrical nodes to their genitals. Women forced to serve the guards naked and being raped and violated with strips of wood and metal.
I stared at the passing people. Watching them “live” with no idea of me or what I was reading or the suffering and misery in the world. Ian McEwan’s remarks about photography and its evocation of mortality came floating back into my attention.
“Not only the young couple pausing by a park railing, but the child with a hoop and stick, the starchy nurse, the solemn baby upright in its carriage- their lives have run their course, and they are all gone. And yet frozen in sepia, they appear curiously, busily, obliviously of the fact that they must die-as Susan Sontag put it “photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading towards their own destruction” Photography she said is the inventory of mortality”
That thought returned to me as it does near every day, that this will all end. That my life is finite and ever depleting, that with each passing moment with every exhalation of breath I move closer to my death.
My friend arrived on bike puffed, yet without looking hurried or upset. Hugh is perhaps my oldest friend and I have known him since I was a very small boy. A model candidate for eudemonia, a Greek word roughly translates to flourishing or human well being. A fair, tolerant, engaging personality. Open minded and affable. Indeed despite being a Christian he display qualities of openness and curiosity that would shame many an atheist. He perhaps represents the pragmatic argument for religion in its strongest form. We have had many adventures, scrapes, arguments and discussions. Played football together, represented the school on debating matters. Though we have many different views and interests we both subscribe to the essential attitude of being earnest about life.
He told me a charming story being at an Oasis concert and getting involved in a fight with a “Yo” over some trivial jostling. My friend politely asked the man to calm down. Rather than a sheepish acknowledgment and apology from the drunk, a head butt was the reply. My friend speared him to the ground, an unconscious subliminal reaction before being set upon by his friends. No serious damage was sustained. Hugh had the guy in a armlock and was struck from all sides. While this almost surreal event was taking place his mind found time to press play on a discourse as what should he do as a Christian? Fight the attackers or turn the other cheek. Perhaps this best represents Blackmore’s line that we carry foreign ideas or memes around in our head that we would not think about otherwise. I replied jokingly- you have obviously not read Aquinas and his Summa Theologiae his justifications for war. I told him you had plenty of Casus belli to throw a few “digs”. Though he was lucky somebody did not stick a knife in him. The effects of alcohol have never been summed up better by Epictetus that there are three branches to it. First relaxation, second drunkenness and third violence.
My friend took me to a gallery- a joint project between art and science. A challenge and an attempt at consciousnesses raising over our attitudes to disposable materials. Essentially it boiled down to the amount of plastic we throw out rather than recycle or reuse. The novel solution was once the plastics (a fairy liquid bottle say) use was no longer required then it could be dissolved in warm water. It could then be further used by using the plastic gel or perhaps “plagel” or “pell” as a kind of compost. I assure you this is no joke. Plant seeds could be stored in the bottle cap and planted when required. They had a cute display of this with fairy liquid bottles slowly “metamorphosing” into sunflowers. A true fusion of the plastic and the organic perhaps. It was though novel and pleasing to see the fusion between an arts and science project. The two are of course notorious in their antipathy towards each other.
This was signalled as I was introduced to a female acquaintance of my friend. “ah he loves this its all science stuff.” directed jokingly at me. There is of course a division between what can broadly be called the humanities and the sciences. Higher Superstition: the Academic left and its Quarrels with Science. Stephen Pinker’s Blank Slate has a long section on it. Then there is of course Richard Dawkins Unweaving the Rainbow. Where it begins with the famous charge by Keats than Newton destroyed the mystery and wonder of the Rainbow by his “cold” and “sterile” experiments on light. There is something interesting though in the debate. Science Tand technology has made enormous contributions to civilisation and no one is left untouched by its effects. It has an almost promethean ability to discover knowledge and cultivate that knowledge to the betterment of mankind. (Caveats aside-weapon technology, Global warming) However something so practical and useful is generally looked down upon as “lower”. Indeed things like paintings, dance and poetry are elevated to “high Art” and seen as works of genius and the greatest fruits of human aspiration. There is undoubtedly a gaping chasm between the excess and abstraction and uselessness of much art and its cultural prestige and promethean science which is largely snubbed and trivialised. I’m no philistine nor am I far from sympathy with culture (I feel my life would be a great deal lesser without some of the pleasures of literature, film and music.) The best case comes from evidence against interest which is John Carey’s What Good are the Arts? A kind of God Delusion for the art world which asks some tough questions and gives some pointed answers. Carey is no barbarian at the gate, he is a professor of literature at Oxford no less so its his “turf” he is talking about.
Another thought arose when viewing the gallery. The depressing but realistic conclusion from Jared Diamond in his book Collapse how societies choose to fail or survive. (which I had just finished). Diamond argues that our environmental damage and ecological destruction is hurtling us toward the cliff (unsurprising) but that with much of the world in third world or developing status they will contribute to the damage by modernising. The cruel irony is that the world as a whole will not be able to support large swaths of the planet living as we do in Europe and America. Mass immigration will not solve the problems as it will overwhelm our own resources. In this day and age, with Global warming, weapons of mass destruction, rogue states and continuing human rights abuses the need for a world government is needed more than ever. Millions though will have to live in abject misery for a very long time. And unless the experts are very much wrong our current form of living will not last forever.
I flicked through a copy of Sight and Sound while in reception. It had as its main spread “What good are film critics?” I had little time to ingest the pro and cons but David Thomson as ever had something interesting to say though as usual unconnected with the issue discussed. He relayed Norman Mailer’s views on film as death “Film is a phenomenon whose resemblance to death has been ignored for too long.” The similarity of this reminded me of my earlier thoughts of McEwan. He goes onto to say that the capturing of emotion, atmosphere, action on film which survives as a kind of memory of what has passed. This is similar to our own memories which constructs the past and plays it out in our heads like little film reels. Films are “static” yet watch a favourite years apart and your aware of the changes and differences in your own life since your last viewing. You move on but the film is entombed in time.
We had lunch near the Albert Clock. I had an enormous “lunch” box of pasta. Hugh less so. We enjoyed a cigarette post lunch and a talk about happiness and society. We start out at roughly the same place: a disenchantment with poplar culture, a refusal to be satisfied with “barbecues and ball games”. Hugh liked the phrase though I must confess I stole it from Robert De Niro in Heat in the immortal address between him and Pacino. My friend’s solution is ultimately in Christianity, mine is far less certain and open ended. The importance of friendship and connection is something he lists as a valuable necessity for the good life. I broadly agree with this but as someone who has dwelled both on and in solitude I wouldn’t say that this was sufficient itself for happiness. For there are many people who are hermits and profess to be perfectly happy. This however is the exception not the norm.
The truth though is that for most of us it is neither possible nor desirable to live alone. My friend somewhat romantically pines to live in the past, in a small, tightly knit community of cooperation and friendship. There is much to had in this but I think part of our generations challenge is to think globally and internationally. It cannot be dismissed though that loving ones neighbour and existing in a community is surely better than living in one that’s selfish and alienated. The other challenge is of course to have community that is not tribal, belligerent and hostile.
I believe it is on this question that religion seems to stand on firm ground. Its surely contributes to tribalism but for creating strong, similarly minded communities and hence enabling trust and cooperation it is monolithic. In this country especially it is the only game in town when it comes to occasions such as marking births, marriages and deaths. Providing youth centres and community projects. This is certainly one of the reasons why religion still persists and gives the false impression on people that without it society would collapse. Let me put it bluntly. If your working class in Northern Ireland you have three spheres to belong to. Firstly you have drinking. That is going out to clubs, pubs and house parties near every week to get blind and fighting drunk. Secondly you can cocoon yourself in football and devote yourself to the God that is the Premiership. Third is religion. Drinking and football go well together, football and religion can work. Its hard though to do all three.
You don’t need to be a social psychologist to see and understand the appeal of all three. But if secularists are to win the war with religion they must provide some idea and structure of community, identity and values without committing the excess and divisiveness that religion causes. A article in slate magazine seems to be saying the same thing, showing that there is not just one way of creating, happy vibrant communities.
Me and my friend visited another art gallery and an interesting exchange occurred. It had an exhibition on the Mexican festival of the day of the dead. Where celebrations and gifts to dead children would be “given” to alters. My friend disliked it, perhaps for its “gaudy tastelessness”. It is certainly a different “perspective” from our culture. The curator, a woman dressed in punkish clothes with her hair in dreadlocks engaged us in dialogue. I agreed with her that our culture has a high and unusual aversion to death and it appears unable to look at in and properly acknowledge it. I cannot help but recall Larkin’s line “the vast moth eaten musical brocade created to pretend we never die” the brocade is of course religion and it was on display at this gallery. A huge cross decorated with trinkets and ornaments, skulls, toy cars, sweets, stones.
I posed a question to the woman. Asking for her take on my little “performance art” suggestion. Gather together a few hundred male and female revellers and dress them in Burka’s for a rave. Halfway through the set and no doubt played to some rousing anthem, the lights would go down for a few seconds to come back on again to reveal a transformation. Witnessing a few hundred people discard a symbol-better than any, for the enforced oppression of women and a sign of their servile and secondary status. My little proposal, perhaps the most explosive and radical “performance art” that would ever be undertaken was met with consternation with this impolite suggestion. Apologies were offered over words like “sensitivity” “racism” “modesty” and this “some women choose to wear them.” There is something almost ironic in me with short hair and dressed in denim and desert boots- a short hand look for social conservatism outdoing the so called counter cultural curator before me and my bohemian friend beside me.
Protests such as women “choose” to wear such things is although disputed is still met with the rebuttal that even if freely elected it’s done in the connection with several other unreasonable beliefs. These beliefs come from the Koran and the Hadith which are ultimately given authority by the creator who presumably authored them. A book is not a sufficient reason for either men or women to believe that females are better off treated as chattel and the sexual property of men. What are the odds that Chinese, American or Irish women would freely choose to display their “modesty” in such a way if it was not for the inculcation of such ridiculous beliefs at birth?
The curator said to me that she engages in a lot of cross community work and that it would probably upset people. I wish I had of replied by telling her to look at the Christian cross behind her. Did people NOT get upset by that? Is that not a form of sacrilege? A short time ago you would have burned for such an offence and it is only through the many deaths and brave actions of men and women do you now have the freedom to erect that cross upon your wall. “who are we to criticise other peoples beliefs and practices?” Who are we NOT to criticise beliefs and practices when they are needlessly contributing to the suffering and misery of millions of the worlds population. Words like sensitivity, modesty and respect are obscene when set against the very real and disgusting events such as the thirteen year old Somali girl who was first raped, second accused of “adultery” and third buried to her neck before being bricked to death. Pause on the word adultery and consider this in the context that the girl is thirteen years of age. This further highlights the despicable practice of forced marriages and underage institutionalised rape that occurs across the Islamic world.
There is so much white guilt on this issue and so much political correctness along with the ecumenicalism that religion fosters among itself that is almost impossible to challenge any of the pervading dogmas that surround the issue.
After the art gallery me and my friend had an interesting chat with a police inspector overseeing the arrival of a Royal prince (who’s name escapes me) to the war memorial building in the Cathedral quarter. I asked him what he thought about the war on drugs. The man was articulate and intelligent and it was hard to tell what he really thought. What came across was more or less a support for the blanket ban on drugs. Though we politely disagreed, I did learn something from the exchange. The debate is muddled on two key fronts. Firstly the mistake of equating all drugs as the same and omitting no key distinctions between them. Secondly the framing of the issue. The chief reason of banning and of criminalising them is that they pose a threat to human life. Essentially it is a question of pharmacology not morality nor legality. Looking at it this way you discover the obvious but often omitted point that all drugs are not the same. So we arrive back at my first point. Which as I said is almost always overlooked.
Drugs such as LSD, MDMA and Cannabis are far less dangerous and corrosive to society than is either Alcohol or Tobacco or even perhaps junk food. Our policing on what is essentially a human universal-an unstoppable and eradicable a desire like sex is doomed to failure. Violent offenders both in America and in Britain are released to make room for drug users and dealers. Watching something like The Wire you see that it is prohibition rather than the drugs themselves that cause the violence, the deaths and the societal collapse. The UK recently upgraded Cannabis to class B against the advice of not only the medical experts but the police as well. There was no rational basis for the upgrade. Like a lot of other culture war issues a serious debate and rectification of reasons is scarcely possible when such actions take place.
The proper way of conducting and deciding such debates is via a fourfold step. Firstly the application of reason. Acquiring facts and documenting evidence. Leaving dogmas and superstitions at the door is also required. Secondly using these facts to decided which action or choices increases the net happiness and reducing the suffering of human beings. In a sense what action reduces the most harm. Thirdly considering something like the golden rule. Doing onto others what you would have them do onto you. Or doing onto others what they would want seen done to them. The Golden rule, GB Shaw’s inverse of it and the platinum rule serve two principles. Empathy and opening yourself up to the charge of hypocrisy. Finally considering what is a civil society. What is best for the whole of society? What contributes to the liberty, well being and aspirations of individuals as well as the whole. Though good arguments can be made on both sides of an argument for a variety of issues it is clear that when we consider moral problems through this prism the intellectual and moral pretensions of many who oppose things like abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, inter race marriage and drug prohibition are left stripped and bereft of any credibility whatsoever.
A quiet coffee and cigarette at writers circle on Cathedral quarter is how we played out the rest of the diminishing afternoon. We talked about the Northern Ireland “troubles” I mused as to why it had taken so long for a power sharing agreement to be reached. I asked the open question of what role did people like Gerry Adams, Martin McGuiness and Ian Paisley play in prolonging or instigating the violence. The agreement that we have now is little different from the proposals of the sixties and the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement. Who or what was responsible for the unnecessary violence of the last thirty years? Why did Irish Nationalists give support to bombing and bullets rather than civil rights protests and peaceful marches? Why did they not model themselves on the desegregation movement of America in the sixties? What role did Protestant intransigence and intolerance play in creating the divide? These are open questions to myself that will one day need to be explored. What will people say and think fifty or sixty years hence? That Irish mothers raised a generation of psychopaths? That the failure of reason, compassion and common sense determined the violence? Both sides have a richly sordid and shameful history but can the deep divisions ever be overcome? Our we going about it the right way? Is it good thing that protestant and catholic identities are drummed into us since the moment we are born?
My friend left me at the Linen hall library. A great and vast house of books, a wonderful place to spend a day, reading, chatting and mulling over the great issues. I doubt I fitted in well with my garb of denim and sandy coloured boots. Not with the place mostly populated by wealthy looking elderly people. It was a great little moment as me and my friend chatted overlooking Belfast city hall at twilight. The city centre beautifully illuminated, with the Eye slowly rotating in the background. It was a day well spent.
My time in Belfast had not finished yet. For the past few months I have attended a Meditation group or a Zen group. Sitting that night took on an uncommon simplicity and ease. Suzuki Roshi stated that Zen is “nothing special” “Zen is not some fancy, special art of living.--just to live always in reality, in its exact sense.” I simply sat. Simply did the walking meditation or Kihin. I’m the sort of person who steels himself up for things, mental preparation, planning out moves and thinking ahead. I noticed this aspect in myself that night quite clearly. There was a freedom in simply “getting on with what your doing.” Doing what the moment required without prior thought or planning. There was no thoughts such as “have to concentrate now” “or I must meditate well tonight” “oh look at me Mr meditation”
So why am I interested in such a weird or unusual endeavour? I have always been interested in the orient for as long as I can remember in particular Japan. Childhood fascination with Samurai and Ninjas (who practiced meditation) Japanese history, culture etc. A passing interest in Buddhism but more the particularly Zen school of Japan. So it is somewhat arbitrary my interest in Zen rather than Theravadin or Tibetan Buddhism. Secondly one of my favourite authors Yukio Mishima used the metaphysical underpinnings of rebirth and karma as a vehicle for his sea of fertility teratology. This somewhat rekindled my interest but it was Sam Harris who persuaded me that there might be something of interest worth pursuing. Greek Stoic philosophy also lead me to it, so there is many tributaries and streams which have brought me to it.
Am I wasting my time? In a sense we are all wasting our time in one way or another. How we do it and why is of course the fundamental question. Ironically it is this that Zen attempts to uncover. Similar in a sense to Socrates judgement that an unexamined life is not worth living. A claim I would tentatively advance for eastern religions or philosophies (I’m using a broad brush here) is that some of them in some forms have the very best and most desirable aspects of western traditions. They go on to distil and refine them and claim to cultivate them systemically and methodically via the practice of various meditation strategies. This is of course an empirical claim and I expect science to fully settle the question in the next few decades. Ie whether it is bullshit or not. For myself I can say that I have benefited and enjoyed both the practice and find some of the ethical considerations relevant and useful for today. Its philosophical views on life best expressed in the four noble truths, three marks of existence and eight fold path are particularly elegant. You don’t have to believe anything on faith and nothing need be taken without having good reasons supporting it.
The day though was capped with-well what else? The US election. I was glad to see the Obama win and for the shocking and disgraceful campaign of John McCain to implode. As I write Obama plans to overturn Bush’s obstinate and irrational refusal of funding stem cell research and for his brazen unconcern for unethical methods of oil drilling. I hope of course that the tarnished image of America as a stupid, racist and bellicose nation can be repaired. Obama is not just black but an intellectual-an elite. This is something to be celebrated of course as we have seen what a regular “guy you can have a beer with” does to a country.
I was barely able though to stay awake during the election night. Drifting in and out of sleep, waking up to see Obama edge ever closer to victory. It was a surprise and pleasure to see Christopher Hitchens come on the BBC and ruffle a few feathers with his acerbic wit and bombastic polemics against the McCain campaign. I’m well used to Hitchens on You Tube and in writing but seeing him live and with the rather non-descript company of two bit political pundits made me recognise just how rare and special he is.
So when the election was called early on Wednesday morning I allowed myself a smile. The economic crisis may have given Obama the victory more than any other factor. However there is still some room for “hope” and a example that the lowest common dominators do not always hold sway. After eight years of Bush I sincerely wish that Obama can restore America as the respected leader of the free world.
“everything must be doubted” I was glad to see many Republicans cross party lines and give up divisive single issues and vote for the candidate who is actually best for them. Dogmatically holding on to beliefs, ideas, ideals of how things should be is harmful. It is especially corrosive when those beliefs simply do not map onto reality. Such as Obama being a Muslim or a terrorist or a socialist. To finish lets hope that statements and beliefs such as this are never again operational in politics.
“A few days before the 2004 presidential election, Ron Suskind, a columnist who had been investigating the White House and its communications for years, wrote in The New York Times about a conversation he had with a presidential adviser in 2002. “The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community’, which he defined as people ‘who believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality’. I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors.. and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’