Popes, Presidents, and Zombies

Philosophy, Politics 2007-02-27 03:50

Some time ago, I watched a documentary about the Vatican, which gave a peek at the highly ritualistic lifestyle of the pope. One aspect in particular jumped out at me: once elected, every single moment of the pope’s life from that day forward is planned. He never has a moment to himself, or some free time to sit and think. He can’t pursue his own interests or take a vacation. In short, he is always the pope, for every minute between election and death.

This seemed to explain something I had always noticed, when watching video footage of the guy. He seems lifeless. An animated corpus, moving through a series of motions and activities predefined long before, but with no inner passion or spirit of his own.

And it makes sense - I think we would all react that way, given a guided lifestyle like his. Always on display, always performing a role. Every moment is a potential photo-op. (Seriously: the guy has his own photographer that follows him around all day, snapping pictures of nearly every waking moment.)

I guess it just wouldn’t do to have the pope ever caught scratching his ass, or making a funny face while laughing at a joke, or displaying the least bit of emotion about his own life or circumstance. What can one do, when one must constantly suppress their thoughts, feelings, and desires, 24 hours a day? I think those thoughts and feelings simply become lost. The best way to suppress them is never to have them in the first place.
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Organs For Sale

Philosophy, Health 2007-02-27 03:45

Organs for Sale outlines the current state of the organ market (that is, there is none: sale of organs is illegal), and some alternatives to the current system that would allow a great number of lives to be saved through transplants.

Soldiering and the Moral Fear

Philosophy, History 2007-01-08 12:39

What motivates a solider to throw himself into battle, knowing full well that he may be maimed or killed? “Patriotism” is the idealistic answer, and surely that is often true. But another motivation, and perhaps a more common one, is fear of being seen as cowardly by comrades and the folks back home. A Union soldier writing about his battle experience in the American civil war calls this a “moral fear” in this poignant passage:

“When bullets are whacking against tree-trunks and solid shot are cracking skulls like egg-shells, the consuming passion in the breast of the average man is to get out of the way. Between the physical fear of going forward and the moral fear of turning back, there is a predicament of exceptional awkwardness.”

Poor People Live Like Kings

“People in <insert poor country here> live off of less than $1 a day.”

How often have you come across a phrase like this in a magazine or on the news? When we encounter a figure like this, we shake our heads in pity the poverty of these individuals, and give thanks for our own good fortune.

Recently I read an article which described the lifestyle of a family living in India, one of the poorest large nations on earth. The article pointed out that the family was living the exact same way that their great-grandparents had a century ago. Same farm, same farming techniques, same quantity of food, same clothing. Note that their great-grandparents were not poor; it is only the modern individuals (according to the article) who are.

Wait a minute: their lives are almost exactly the same as their ancestors, yet we call one of them poor and the other not? Why? If their lives are the same, shouldn’t they get the same label?
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What Would Satan Do?

Philosophy, Spirituality 2006-07-08 02:15

The other day a perfect stranger approached me and asked, “Do you worship Satan?” I get this question from time to time, though oddly enough it’s never happened when I’m wearing my leviathan shirt.

Since I’m an atheist, Satan is as real to me as all the other elements of the Christian mythos, the gods and devils of other religions, or Santa Claus. He (it?) is a fictitious construct used for mythological storytelling. But unlike most of other Bible stories (e.g. guys getting swallowed by fishes, other guys having god command them to kill their own children, and that sort of good-natured fun), I do find some value in the mythological figure of Lucifer.

So it’s not that I worship Satan. No, it would be more correct to say that I consider Satan to be an excellent role model.
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Worry Makes It Good

Philosophy 2006-03-08 04:27

“People who do good work often think that whatever they’re working on is no good. Others see what they’ve done and are full of wonder, but the creator is full of worry. This pattern is no coincidence: it is the worry that made the work good.”

From Being Popular by Paul Graham

(I would add that it is not just work that is made good by intensive self-criticism, but oneself as well.)

Freedom Challenges

Philosophy, Life, Liberty 2005-12-11 09:49

Life is more interesting when as many people as possible do what they want, get what they want, and have to face the resulting challenges. I assert that the freedom part of that equation tends to produce well-being. […] The last proposition is the peculiar bit: that the unfolding of challenges — their being met and failed — makes life worth living.

From Rich Is Beautiful by Richard D. North, from the November 2005 Cato Policy Report

Remnants of Truth

Philosophy 2005-05-13 04:49

On page 29 of Greg Egan’s excellent science fiction novel Teranesia, you will find the following passage:

Life and death were mysteries to him, but no mystery was impenetrable. The earliest attempts to understand these things, he reasoned, must have foundered against obstacles that seemed insurmountable, leaving behind failed systems of knowledge to ossify or degenerate. That was the source of religion. But someone, somewhere had always carried on the search in good faith; someone had always found the strength to keep on asking: Are the things I believe true? That was the legacy he’d claim.

I was really struck by this passage when reading it for the first time. Previously, I had always thought of most philosophies and religions as ugly warts on the face of human knowledge. The problem is not just that their teachings are incorrect: it is that they insist that they are sacred, correct, and unquestionable. Therefore, these systems of knowledge (as Egan neatly terms it) have no lasting purpose or value.

Put in the light of the quote, however, they do have significance: as discarded remnants left along the path to truth. Thinkers like Aristotle, Buddha, and Thomas Aquinas developed religious and philosophical systems which, continued by others well past their creators’ own lifetimes, became rigid and dogmatic. Because of this, the modern incarnations of these schools of thought have little value. This makes it easy to be dismissive of the men who created them, as well. But in fact their creations represent necessary steps - the inevitable branches and dead-ends - on the long and eternal road to enlightenment. These thinkers should be respected for assisting humanity down that road, not for their actual teachings.
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Defining Artistic Value

Philosophy, Art 2005-05-11 04:07

What is art? Most people define art the say same way they define pornography - “I know it when I see it.” The dictionary definition is “works produced by the conscious use of skill and creative imagination” - which tells us how it is made, but what it actually is.

First, let’s separate art into two categories: functional (e.g. architecture, graphic design, or software engineering) and pure art (e.g. painting, sculpture, or music). Items in the former category have practical purposes, which can be defined in an objective fashion. So let’s ignore that category; or at least, ignore the practical aspects of the category. A building has a functional purpose, but its aesthetic represents its pure artistic value.

Considering pure art, then, my definition is thus:

Art is an attempt by an artist to convey a concept or emotion in a non-direct fashion to an audience.

Normally, humans communicate their thoughts to each other via words, sometimes supplemented by facial expressions and gestures. This direct route of communication works well for most purposes, but not all. There are many thoughts and feelings which cannot effectively be conveyed by describing them directly. Or, perhaps they can be described, but the audience will gain only an intellectual understanding. The audience’s understanding would be much more personal and poignant if they actually feel it themselves. I can tell you “I’m angry” and you will know what I mean; but it is a more powerful thing if I create a piece of art which makes you feel angry yourself.
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