Monday, May 28, 2012

Woody Allen’s Curious Intellectualism

Woody Allen films are famous for their existential comedy. On the one hand, these films tend to feature the Woody Allen character, a hyper-rational, neurotic atheist and existentialist who fears death and regards life as absurdly unfair. On the other hand, this character is highly sexual and instead of ascetically retreating from life, he finds humour in tragic situations, expressing that humour in wry one-liners. Most of his films mine this paradox, but Whatever Works, starring Larry David as the Woody Allen character, called Boris, neatly summarizes what seems Allen’s personal philosophy. No familiarity with this particular movie’s plot is needed to understand Boris’ concluding speech, since this speech could have been inserted into nearly any of his movies.

Boris says, “I totally lucked out. It just shows what meaningless blind chance the universe is. Everybody schemes and dreams to meet the right person, and I jump out a window and land on her [his soul mate]. And a psychic yet! I mean, come on, talk about the irrational heart [Boris is a hyper-rationalist physicist who loves her in spite of himself]...I happen to hate New year's celebrations. Everybody desperate to have fun. Trying to celebrate in some pathetic little way. Celebrate what? A step closer to the grave? That's why I can't say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works. And don't kid yourself, it's by no means all up to your own human ingenuity. A bigger part of your existence is luck than you'd like to admit. Christ, you know the odds of your father's one sperm from the billions, finding the single egg that made you? Don't think about it, you'll have a panic attack.” (Whatever Works script)

This speech refers both to dark existentialism (the inevitability of death) and to the need for happiness and sexuality, to life’s unfairness (success’ dependence on luck) and to the possibility of grace. Evidently, the film’s title, “Whatever Works,” is meant to call to mind a pragmatic amoralist’s libertinism, the license to exploit nature’s inhumanity, not for evil but for good--which Allen assumes to be mainly the pursuit of personal pleasure with a life partner. As evidenced by his cerebral, philosophical humour and his scandalous love life, Woody Allen’s movies seem vehicles for preaching his personal wisdom, if not autobiographies.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

New Atheist and Spiritual Atheist in Dialogue

New Atheist: What’s this I hear about you calling yourself a “spiritual atheist”? Are you a recent convert from some religion and can’t bring yourself all the way to a rational standpoint? Or maybe you’re a philosophical fellow who has to muddy all waters to leave work for academics of your ilk.

Spiritual Atheist: Neither. I grew up in a secular household and although I do read philosophy, I’m no partisan defender of its current academic form. On the contrary, for all the social good professional philosophers presently do, they might as well close up shop.

NA: Ah, then you must be a closet mystic, an accommodationist who thinks religion and science can live happily together, because there are some mysteries that science or reason more generally will never solve. In other words, you’re addicted to woo.

Spirituality as Woo

SA: Well, that’s a lot of loaded rhetoric. What do you mean by “woo,” for example?

NA: Just what I said: you want to preserve mysteries by using obscure notions that are supposed to build bridges between religion and science.

SA: More loaded rhetoric and ad hominem. Even if I were “addicted” to Mystery, shouldn’t you feel embarrassed as a so-called rationalist to stoop to such a postmodern fallacy, confusing the psychological origin of an idea with its epistemic merit?

NA: Fine, then, ditch the rhetoric! Sheesh! Who says the debate about atheism can’t be entertaining?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Dirge in the Undead God

The undead Creator writhes and lurches,
God of all but unsung in churches;
Entombed in vacuum its limbs decay,
Flesh the stuff of the Milky Way;
Commanded by moans the cosmos unfurls,
Drooling worlds in Fibonacci swirls;
Unaware, its galactic muscles flex,
Black maws swallowing its Hydra-like necks;
Chambers of its sprawling heart, the stars
Send life-blood to the god’s avatars

The pawns of Earth, proud and impious,
Deem themselves divine, ticks in God’s carcass;
Before their eyes the lifeless body moves:
Stars shine, wind blows and rain falls, which proves
That nature’s God, no spirit required,
The monstrous plenum from the first expired

The Creator evolved a head, the Earth,
Yet the minds thereon are tasked not to birth
Whole worlds but to behold the rotting face,
Tattered wings, shattered carapace.
Could a noble soul be found confined
To carrion or mustn’t that soul be resigned
To horror and folly, as a senile old man
Dines on the dung in his foul bedpan?
Or as a mad fish, loathing the sea,
Flops on land, comically free?

Sunday, May 6, 2012

The Rich, Full Life

Among the throngs of shiny, happy people, there’s an upper tier in which are seated those renowned for their more monumental contentment: not only are these blessed few pleased with their lot and so unmoved by empathy for the suffering masses and undisturbed by knowledge of our existential predicament, but they’ve managed to accrue for themselves what we dub a Rich, Full Life (RFL). (See Happiness.) These champions of egotism are personally fulfilled, to be sure, but that understates the completeness of their triumph, since they’re happy many times over, as it were. The happiness of a hundred ordinary folks doesn’t equal that of a single hero who’s blessed with an RFL, who has traveled the whole world, garnered a bewildering variety of experiences, succeeded in numerous fields, loved and been loved by countless life partners.

Enduring their torments far beyond that upper tier and the herd of cheerful consumers and pragmatists, the inured losers moan in agony, crying in despair, trembling in horror. The worst of these are said to be cursed with the opposite of the RFL, namely with an Empty, Wasted one (EWL). Sometimes intentionally withdrawing from the race to flourish, these self-tortured existentialists, mystical ascetics, and assorted omega men and women are unhappy, to be sure; but time also passes them by, as do opportunities for advancement, and so their mind comes to resemble a barren echo chamber filled by their harping inner voice, bereft of memories of mountains climbed, friends and lovers enjoyed, conventional challenges met, or luxuries consumed. All the struggles of their ancestors have led, pitifully and tragically, to their withdrawal, to their dropping of the torch. (See Procreation for Ancestors.)

Such is my dramatic way of drawing the politically correct distinction between the happiest and unhappiest people. But let’s look closer at this pair of categories. Much of the meaning of an RFL and of an EWL is relative: the person with a wide variety of enjoyments and successes is deemed all the happier by comparison with the person with few if any of them. An RFL is praised and an EWL is pitied because they’re so far apart from each other: the happiest people have won the race only by leaving far behind the losers, and the unhappiest are those who can regret that they haven’t seen or done as much as the winners. Another way to frame the distinction is to rank each life next to the plethora of potential experiences that humans can have, in which case the happiest are those who have at least a representative sample of those total experiences, while the unhappiest are subhuman in that their accomplishments fall below that threshold.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Should Atheists Mourn the Death of God?

A Catholic priest, Robert Barron, criticized the exuberance of New Atheists, contrasting the New Atheist’s slogan, “There’s probably no God; now stop worrying and enjoy your life,” with the dark existentialism of earlier atheists like Nietzsche and Camus. According to Barron, only the existential atheists follow atheism to its logical conclusions, that life is meaningless, that there’s no hope, and as Dostoevsky implied, that everything is permitted. The biologist and New Atheistic blogger Jerry Coyne replied as follows:
The answer of course, is that we, not a sky-father, give life its meaning, and can find joy and fulfillment in the limited time we have. Is that “frivolous”? I don’t think so. Given our finite span, why spend our time being dolorous, weighed down by the supposed futility of life? There is so much beauty and love to be had, not to mention friendship, books, music, food, drink, and cats; and I for one am happy to be happy about these things.
I think most New Atheists would agree with Coyne. And of course, as a practical, political matter, the bus slogan is fine because it militates against the theist’s conviction that atheism is a highway to hell. In the sociopolitical context of the war between atheists and theists, exaggerated cheeriness in New Atheism is defensible on what Dawkins calls strategic grounds.

New Atheism’s Naturalization of Values

But as to the substance of the disagreement between existential and New Atheists, the memes (prepackaged platitudes) contained in Coyne’s response hardly settle the matter. The theist contends that if atheism is true, life has no meaning and therefore the atheist has no right to be merry. The New Atheist replies that while there may be no higher, transcendent meaning, value or purpose of our life, there are still local, subjective meanings dependent on our interests. Thus, Coyne finds meaning in books, cats, and so forth, and that’s why he’s happy. The theist can then say that this merely raises the further question of whether the atheist’s particular interests ought to be pursued, or whether her values are justifiable. If there’s no higher authority, why isn’t everything permitted? Coyne values music, food, and cats, while a serial killer enjoys killing children. If there’s no God, is this all just a matter of taste?

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Revenge of the Omega Men

Human societies tend to develop the same underlying structure as that of most other social species. Differences in physical strength and in social connections between many animals solidify at the emergent social level, forming a dominance hierarchy, or pecking order, in which the strongest members or the possessors of the most powerful alliances in the group are given privileged access to food and sex, thus ensuring the proliferation of the most useful genetic lineages. (See Oligarchy.) Ethologists speak of alpha, beta, and omega males, as well as others, to denote the different positions in such a power hierarchy. This classification has filtered down to popular culture, where it’s now prevalent on websites exploring dating, the so-called Game of seducing women, and men’s issues. By way of evolutionary pop psychology, in which quasi-scientific just-so-stories from biology are concocted to explain the nuances of human behaviour, men and women rank men in those ethological terms and speculate on the psychological ramifications of being, say, an alpha man.

Alpha, Beta, and Omega Men

Here, for example, is what I’ve gleaned from perusing some of those websites about how alpha, beta, and omega men understand each other and themselves. (See, for example, Roissy’s blog, and these AskMen and Slate articles.) Ethologically, an alpha male is at the top of his dominance hierarchy, leading the group, eating first when food is obtained, and given exclusive or otherwise special access to the females. In the Game sub-culture, scientistic men contend that successful sexual hookups and even marriages can be literally engineered with insights from evolutionary psychology, reducing human interactions to moves in a game and concomitantly objectifying the players. Alpha men are often lauded as the winners of this game, because they’ve mastered the trick of wresting sex from the greatest quantity of the highest quality of women. Arguably, though, an alpha’s victory is naturally delusory, since his superficial pleasures mask his slavery to his self-imposed, often fallacious imperative to serve in the process of spreading his genes, at the cost of losing out on the richer pleasures from a long-term sexual relationship, which the alpha male is ill-equipped to earn.