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Non-Fiction

Lately I’ve become acutely aware of this feeling of gloom that’s been following me around nipping at my heals like some starved mongrel.  That’s not to say this dark void that passes through me has remained entirely opaque, for I have been aware of some form of psychic mass weighing on me for the past year or so.  It’s not tied to any overt trauma like the diagnosis of terminal cancer or the death of a dearest Aunt May; no this is the sort of dread born deep within the id and thrust upward toward the airy heights of the conscious mind, and if the title of this post is any indication then the cause of my occasional dark thoughts is that one simple yet so important question plaguing humans since our organic computers first became self-aware: Why must I die?

I suppose the best place to start this bit of self-reflection is with…some self-reflection.  It was sometime during last winter when I would find myself overcome with these feelings of dread over my position in life and where I was headed.  I was driving around the Southern Tier delivering medical supplies to various offices, clinics, etc. which required me to put in long hours in adverse conditions.  Day in and day out I drove hundreds of miles in treacherous blizzards ensuring the safe delivery of IVs, pillow cases, rubbing alcohol, band-aids, etc. to disgruntled nurses when this feeling of “is this all I will accomplish with my life” started popping its pessimistic face out of the subconscious bush.  This feeling of failure is important to me, for I read it as an urgent message sent to myself through the bio-highways of the brain saying “Hey dummy, get off your ass and be something more than a truck driver!”  A strong message indeed, but how does this get to the question of dying?

That’s an easy question to answer: I’m afraid of dying without leaving my mark.  It’s not the process of dying that scares me; it’s not truly having lived and shedding the mortal coil full of regrets which frightens me so.  Fast-forward a year later and things have improved somewhat.  I’m not slaving fifty hours a week for meager wages anymore (Thanks chronic shoulder affliction) which does leave me much more time to pursue my passions of writing and studying every aspect of humanity I can get my eyes and ears on.  Of course what I strive to achieve and the roads which need to be traversed are much different than before; there is a security and comfort found in having an employer with their benefits, 401K, guaranteed raises, and Christmas parties. However, with that security comes the mundane and imaging myself thirty years from now with only faded memories and some shitty parting gift as souvenirs for my toil is the most fearful conception of a life spent.  Better to eat lead now and save the slow pathetic decline.  So I travel down new roads and seek new opportunities.  I want to create my own way through this fascinatingly crazy thing we call life and when my story comes to its final page I want the last paragraph to be full of smiles.

It’s the price we pay for a lovely night of debauchery, lust, and the letting go of the societal moors keeping us safely snug in our daily pursuits of money, ménage and monotony.  The swollen aching brain, the stiff joints, the nausea, and the regrets are just some of the symptoms of the previous night’s merry dehydration and subsequent extraction of all those precious vitamins and minerals.  But we take that bill as receipt of some much needed and oft times blurry fun and gladly pay the toll.  Pills, vitamins, herbal remedies, green drinks, etc. etc. etc. are oft employed as mitigation against this terrible affliction and unless one has gone down to the bottoms of the boozy depths, they should be feeling quite well after a quiet night of rest.  However, it has been my experience that this is not the end of matters and there is indeed a further price to be paid the next day –that being of thought.

Specifically what I am typing about is the creative impulse…or urge…or whatever you want to call it that gives us the ability to invent new ideas, draw intriguing conclusions, synthesize competing ideas into new form à la Hegelian dialectic, and all the other sorts of thoughts we are able to draw upon utilizing this mental process.  Personally, I feel my creative urges being replaced by a dull empty nothingness like a crystal calm ocean devoid of traffic and motion.  In this state it is near impossible to muster any sort of relevant or interesting information to transmit outward into the world leaving me as nothing more than an apathetic receiver barely able to digest much beyond the rudimentary bustling of the tribe.  The world en masse feels dull and unadventurous; nothing more than a tiresome ingemination of similar circumstances meandering its way down the temporal river of life until the point of departure is finally reached…how useless.  All alone in a mental ocean of nothingness; I would say that minus the incessant craving for brains this is how a zombie would perceive the world, except that brains is exactly what I crave…though brain power would probably be more accurate.

This was my study guide for an examination I took on Spinoza’s substance monism.

Note: [1P*] refer to premises, [1A*] refer to axioms, and [1D*] refer to definitions.

Preliminary Remarks

The root idea behind the notion of substance in Spinoza [S] is what has properties or is a subject of predication. But it cannot be just anything serving this role; otherwise a great many things in the world would qualify which S doesn’t want to say. The notion as S uses it (and was defined by Descartes) includes items which are causally self-sufficient or indestructible. S tells us in [1D3] that substance is what is in itself, conceived through itself, and doesn’t require any other concept for its formation. In other words, substance is self-caused, self-sufficient, and has complete independence from all other things in its formation. A further point which follows from this def. comes from [1D1] where S defines self-cause as a thing whose essence requires existence or whose nature cannot be conceived except as existing. Why must existence be part of the essence of substance? Because substance is gonna be the substratum from which the universe exists and such can’t itself contingently exist.

Essence also appears in [1D4] where S tells us that an attribute is what the intellect perceives of a substance, as constituting its essence. There are ambiguities and different interpretive strategies by scholars concerning this def. but I think the best way to explain it is by saying that attributes are the basic ways in which the human intellect can, in their limited fashion, comprehend the nature or essence of substance; and humans have access to two attributes which are extension and thought. That said, let me throw out one more def. before moving on to S’s main argument.

[1D5] defines a mode as the affections (or predicates) of a substance…conceived through another. In other words, modes are all the particulars, finite things found in the universe, which are predicated on substance and understood through the attributes of extension and thought.

Main Argument for Spinoza’s Substance Monism

There are five main steps, as I see it, involved in Spinoza’s argument for substance monism, the first being the ‘no shared attribute’ thesis found in [1P5]. The premise, which says that “in nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute,” rests on two earlier premises: [1P4] which says that two or more distinct things are distinguished either by a difference in their attributes or a difference in their modes. This is Spinoza’s version of the identity of indiscernibles, which says that for A ≠ B means that A has or lacks some attribute or mode which B either has or doesn’t have, and [1P1] which states that substances are prior to their modes. The argument goes like this:

If A and B are distinct, they are distinct either in their attributes or their modes (1p4). Thus if A and B are distinct but share their attributes, they must have different modes. If A and B can be conceived as distinct through their modes, A and B can be conceived through their modes. But a substance cannot be conceived through its modes (1p1). So if A and B are distinct but share their attributes, they cannot be

conceived of as distinct. Thus their distinctness cannot be conceived. So if A and B are distinct they must differ in their attributes. Hence no two substances can share an attribute (1p5).

The second move comes at [1P7]: It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist. The argument for this premise comes from [1D1] and from [1P6C] which says that substance cannot be produced by anything else. [1P6C] comes as a result of [1P6] which states that one substance can’t produce another substance. What drives [1P6] is the [1P5] along with [1P2] which says that substances with different attributes have nothing in common with each other. If substances have different attributes and those attributes have nothing in common with each other, then they can’t play any sort of causal role with each other by [1P3]. And if substances can’t causally affect each other, then [1P6C] follows for substances and affections are all there are in nature. Thus, substance is self-caused and exists by its own nature.

The third move comes at [1P11]: God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists. The first thing to point out is minus the “necessarily exists” part, this is S’s def. of God found in [1D6]. Next, the “infinite attributes” clause is not merely definitional, there is an argument for substance being necessarily infinite found at [1P8]. The argument for that premise rests on [1P5], [1P7], and the def. of finite at [1D2]: a thing is finite if it can be limited by another of its own nature. Now, S runs to arguments for [1P11], a version of the ontological argument (which I shall pass over), and a more interesting causal argument which goes like this:

Everything must have a cause for both its existence and non-existence. This cause must either come from within it or from outside of it. Substance (God) exists according to its own nature and must do so. If something were to cause God to not exist, therefore, it would have to come from outside of God. But a substance that is separate from God would have nothing in common with God [1P2, 1P5] and could not cause God to not exist. Therefore, if God cannot cause his own non-existence, and nothing outside God can cause his non-existence, then God must necessarily exist.

The fourth step comes at [1P14]: Except God, no substance can be or be conceived. This is the decisive move for showing the monistic quality of S’s metaphysics. The argument for this premise rests on [1D6, 1P11, and 1P5] and runs like this:

God is an absolutely infinite being containing infinite attributes and who necessarily exists. If there were another substance which also existed, it would have to be explained through one of God’s attributes since God contains the infinite quantity of them. But two substances cannot be explained through the same attribute. Also, since it’s part of a substance’s nature to exist, for it to be or be conceived of would involve it being conceived through at least one attribute. Therefore no other substance but God can be or be conceived of.

The final step to this argument is at [1P15]: Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God. This argument stems from [1P14, 1D3, 1D5, and 1A1] and runs like this:

Except for God, there neither is, nor can be conceived, any substance that is in itself and conceived through itself. Modes, on the other hand, can neither be nor be conceived without substance. Only substances and modes exist. Therefore, everything is in God, and nothing can be conceived without God.

Here’s the five steps sans explanation:

  1. [1P5] In nature there cannot be two or more substances of the same nature or attribute.
  2. [1P7] It pertains to the nature of a substance to exist.
  3. [1P11] God, or a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, necessarily exists.
  4. [1P14] Except God, no substance can be or be conceived.
  5. [1P15] Whatever is, is in God, and nothing can be or be conceived without God.

What is the greater fear to have, looking back on a lifetime of missed opportunities and unrealized potential, or being faced with choices with uncertain outcomes requiring a “leap of faith?”  Both can be nerve-racking in their own right, but I think the obvious distinction to make here involves which tense we’re talking about.

Suppose for a second that you are seventy years old and reflecting on a long life of decisions, choices, attitudes, etc.  How would you want that to go?  Certainly I would think of how those missed opportunities and failed attempts would be biting and wrought with anxiety: “Oh I should have quit my job and pursued my dreams when I had the chance,” “why didn’t I make time for a family,” and “If only I could have made my marriage work” are just a few of those sorts of thoughts that might come to mind.  Ultimately it is a fear of the past, a fear of not living up to our own standards that drives this sort of thought, and I cannot think of much worse than being at the end of ones own life and having only regrets.

Now imagine you are a vibrant thirty year old working at a decent job with security and the possibility for some sort of growth.  It’s not your passion to be sure, but it’s alright, gets you by, pays the bills, but lacks in any sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.  An opportunity exists to leave the comfort of your job and pursue something you’re passionate about (whatever that may be), but it’s by no means certain that you will succeed.  What do you do?  Sure, taking the leap and following your dreams sounds wonderfully adventurous and has a sort of storybook quality, but this is the real world and you have bills to pay and (possibly) people to support.  This is the fear of failure, the fear of going for broke…and becoming broke, it is a fear of the future and not knowing what it holds, and (perhaps most importantly) it is the fear of letting yourself and those around you down.

Here is where we find ourselves, sitting on this point we call present while being stuck between these past and future oriented fears.  Whatever are we to do?  The title of this blog lends itself to a sort of pessimistic denial of action/inaction that could leave a person bitter and defeated by the end of their journey.  On the other hand, it would seem almost silly if someone were wholly optimistic over the notions of possible failure and regret.  Perhaps the problem is that we are faced with a false dichotomy between leaping into the unknown and the roads more safely traveled; the actual solution to the problem is to live only for the present.  Unfortunately, to only live for the present would negate knowledge gleaned from prior mistakes and successes which could help navigate us better through the opaque waters of the future.  Perhaps the real culprit here is fear.  Instead of regretting past mistakes we should embrace them as learning tools, and instead of fearing the unknown of the future we should embrace the exhilarating freedom we feel as we venture down our own paths to greatness.  Living our lives without fear, now that is a truly anti-American  concept.

“I didn’t know this place ordered any Super Bowl tickets…heh?  Hahahaha!” 

And so goes yet another one of the thousands of human exchanges I’ve had to endure where my antagonist assumes facts not in evidence.  In this particular case a rather Costanzaish looking fellow, fully equipped with a reverse Geordi LaForge Visor haircut, abnormally apish forehead, and small squinty eyes assumed one or more of the following: (A) That I watch American Football (or as I like to call it, Handegg), (B) That I shared his opinion of the quality of game that was the Super Bowl this year, or (C) That I wished to converse with an odd looking man standing sheepishly in the waiting room of an OBGYN while I was making a delivery.

Now I know there are some people who would say I am being too judgmental of this man or that he was just trying to be nice and I should be alright with that, but truth be told it is the contraposition which I believe holds true.  Allow me to illustrate.
Let’s take the first statement that I am being too judgmental of this poor old bloke.  The line of argumentation, I suppose, would go something like the following:  Look at this guy, he’s standing in the waiting room of an OBGYN (presumably waiting for a woman he knows) and is probably feeling very uncomfortable (hence him not sitting or reading a magazine or whatever).  He sees you come in with your boxes of wares to make livery, and sensing a (at least temporary) way out of his uncomfortable situation, he seeks to perform some male bonding utilizing a subject he (and most likely his friends) hold very dear.  Stop being such a judgmental prick and just be nice to the guy.
Well argued indeed my charming interlocutor (minus your scathing ad hominem), but now please allow me to retort.  I would firstly concur that my remarks as to the man’s stature at the beginning of this piece were indeed judgmental, but those were words typed in the heat of passion.  Besides that, it is HE not I who judges.  I entered these premises strictly for business purposes and engaged in no conversation except of business matters with the staff.  However, by seeking me out with his football related folly, this man made judgments about my tastes, my sense of humor, and even my demeanor, and he did all this by projecting his own self onto me.  In assuming I would giggle at his little quip as he was, he was subconsciously projecting outward the very things he held dear onto me, a stranger, and basically hoped for the best.  For if we had known each other as friends or even acquaintances then this would have been impossible because he would have known my distaste for all things Handegg.  By not knowing me and engaging me on this subject, he was in essence using me as a vessel for an outward manifestation of the mental masturbation that was him coming up with that terrible joke.  And this makes me feel terribly unclean and violated.

Now if you were to come back at me by claiming that maybe this man was just trying to be friendly and I should lighten up on him, then to you I say this:  I was cordial with him as I am not a rude person.  But that being said, again he is assuming I want to be friendly in that situation which, again, is a manifestation of his own desires.  I was reaching the end of an eleven hour day, exhausted, and in no mood for small talk.  Under different circumstances I would love to make small talk over certain matters, and perhaps we could have even found common ground.  And if you say that he could not know my particular state at that moment, I would reply with an emphatic EXACTLY!  He doesn’t know, so why is he trying to be witty and engaging?  What’s wrong with a simple “Hi, how’re you doing today?” which I always welcome from strangers as it’s a simple, innocuous, safe way to engage those you do not know.
In short, I think it is a terrible habit I see far too often when we start going on about the things we find important without prompting and without regard for how the other person will receive it.  That’s not to say that there’s not a time and place to talk to people about things outside their particular prevue, all I’m saying is that it’s inappropriate to do so with strangers who are just trying to do their job.

F.Y.I. The stranger’s “joke” was his way of responding to a case of toilet paper I was bringing in.  Ha…ha

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I was listening to a podcast earlier on the First World War and it got me thinking about societal changes and norms throughout the ages.  Specifically, I was thinking about those people who had the misfortune of having lived through both of the world wars, and what effects a lifetime of war would have on the psyche, which would in turn effect societal structuring.  Imagine for a moment a young man, born around 1895, growing up within the relative political stability that existed between the Franco-Prussian and first world wars, and then being thrust into four years of living hell having to watch a good majority of his friends and acquaintances get mowed down by machine guns, blown to bits by artillery, or gassed to death.  Just enduring that sort of psychic trauma would be enough to drive someone insane.  So this very fortunate person doesn’t join their 16 million contemporaries in death, and tries to move past it presumably by starting a family, getting a career going, etc.  Now it’s the mid 1930’s and this person again has to watch the political deterioration between countries advance until a second world war break out which will again decimate Europe and again claim the lives of millions upon millions of people.

Regardless of rather this person was British, German, American, French, etc, having to live through two major wars twenty years apart which results in the death of millions of their countrymen has got to skew how you think about all sorts of issues.  Existentially speaking life has to be this thing that is overwhelming full of despair and heartbreak, with only the smatterings of happiness to be found here or there.  Politically there is probably some serious resentment and even pure hatred pointed at those same enemies faced throughout a lifetime.  Even being born forty years after WW2 I grew up learning about the monstrous evils of Nazi Germany and the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.  That is something entrenched in our society and it’s a result of all those people who either lived through both wars, or grew up during the second while hearing all about the first.  How much worse would it have been to be born German though and had to hear about what your own people did?  I wonder if there is a sort of guilt still lying beneath the German social strata.

I think that one of the more negative notions to come out of living through this sort of traumatic period is rampant nationalism.  People have felt a special loyalty to the state or nation they belong to probably since there have been states and nations, but that feeling tends to intensify during periods of war, and in this particular example it probably knows almost no limit.  And those nationalistic tendencies don’t just go away after the fighting is done.  The cold war is a testament to the nationalistic tendencies of peoples who have grown distrustful and suspicious of other nations.  Of course that’s not to say all Nationalism is bad, and I would say a certain amount is probably healthy for positive growth, but as with most things, if pushed to the extreme it can become a negative.

Of course, one could not help but see the irony in bearing witness to the rampant nationalism Germany displayed in this entire time period, and being turned nationalist because of it.  I suppose it would be different for the Germans as their national identity was razed to the ground and raised out of that rubble completely anew.  And if you’re reading this and you are American, Nationalism is really just another way of saying patriotism.  This immediately makes me think of the nationalist hard-on we displayed after 9/11, and how those feelings started to ebb only a decade out.  Now there are many reasons why societal norms shift back and forth, and to be fair I have been overly simplistic thus far because I really wanted to only focus on this, but that said there is one reason why people start becoming less nationalistic and start doing things like questioning their governments, form alliances with foreigners, etc, and that is because they are not being exposed to outside threats on their lives.  Why did people in the 60’s protest Vietnam and preach peace?  Because Vietnam is a third rate country that doesn’t represent any sort of threat to the American citizens not forced to go over there.  Why has nationalism waned in the wake of the towers coming down?  Because nobody really thinks something like that can happen again with all the precautions set in place by the government.  And here I find it very ironic that all those people who scream and shout about the government abusing its power with agencies like the TSA and NSA are only able to do that because those agencies exist to protect them.  That’s not to say there aren’t abuses going on within these agencies or the government in general, and again there are a whole plethora of things going on here, I’m just trying to follow this stream of consciousness to some sort of good ending.  Here looks about right.

The void, blank, lifeless stares of thousands of beaten, defeated, shot-through eyeballs look through me as if transfixed on an entry way of pure light they will never reach.  I meander recklessly through the swollen mass of fleshy automation trying desperately to maintain focus.  The task is simple, the distance is near, yet this ocean of skin could swallow me whole at any moment.  Sweat pours from every pore as I desperately grasp this oh-so not important parcel as if it were made of liquid lust.  My heart thumps harder and harder as I see shallows before me and the rocky high-rise shore beyond that.  Exchanging grunts only discernable to those of us relegated to the rotting underbelly of that great hulking, insomniatic beast, I make for the next arterial carriage to ascend one of the countless metallic giants lording over this capital landscape.  Reaching the jugular, I de-car and upon reaching the prearranged destination, make the expected exchange of goods and services.  Head hanging low with the taste of greedy despair on my tongue, I reverse course and repeat.

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